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Drive through flu-shot clinic makes mask question moot, gives practice to emergency and medical personnel

One of the signs leading to the flu shot clinic at the Central States Fairground.
Kevin Woster
One of the signs leading to the flu shot clinic at the Central States Fairground.

Like most of you, I’ve had my share of drive-through experiences.

Drive-through cash. Drive through burgers. Drive-through parking stubs. Drive through car washes.

But this was the first time I got a drive-through shot in the arm.

And who doesn’t need one of those, especially now that flu season is coming on?

Ah, it’s the age of drive-through everything. Or, in this case, drive-through something very important.

I drove through the James Kjerstad Event Center at the Central States Fairground here in Rapid City early Wednesday afternoon, stopping as directed partway through the building. There, sitting comfortably in my F-150 pickup, I pushed up the short sleeve of my t-shirt and Melanie Watt — a nurse for the South Dakota Department of Health — gave me a barely perceptible poke in my left shoulder.

Heading slowly toward the flu shot clinic area in the James Kjerstad Event Center.
Kevin Woster
Heading slowly toward the flu shot clinic area in the James Kjerstad Event Center.

And, voila, I was inoculated against influenza.

It was called a POD (that’s point of dispense or dispensing) event by local emergency management officials. And it was both an opportunity for training in case of more urgent circumstances and a chance for people like me to catch up on their annual flu shot, without getting out of their vehicles.

More on the flu-shot clinic in a minute.

First, let’s back up from the county fairgrounds for a visit to the county administration building, where I made a stop two days before I got my flu shot.

I was there to pay our property taxes for half a year, a couple of weeks late. Hey, it happens. Cut me some slack!

Anyway, the first thing I noticed after I entered the administration building was one very long line of people and another not-quite-so-long line of people stretching down the hallway. The lines led to different sets of service windows at the Pennington County Treasurer’s Office, where I would pay our taxes.

I also noticed the signs on stands near each line of people that read: “Masks not required, but strongly encouraged.”

I looked around to see how many people were following the strong encouragement and counted, um, let’s see, ah, none.

So much for strongly encouraged as opposed to strongly required.

Any chance you could give me some space?

Noting the signs and the unmasked faces, I walked to the back end of the line leading to the windows I needed, which happened to be the shorter line. I was happy about that, but not all that happy about the coughing from a guy in the other line seven or eight feet away.

Despite the signs, masks were scarce at the Pennington County Administration Building.
Kevin Woster
Despite the signs, masks were scarce at the Pennington County Administration Building.

Nor was I particularly thrilled about the woman who came up behind me in line. I mean right behind me, As in within two feet. Then she seemed to edge a little closer. I waited a while, keeping a nice gap between myself and the woman in front of me, who also coughed — into her sleeve, thank you.

Then I took a couple of steps forward, as did the woman behind me. Or maybe she took 2 1/2 steps. Because she seemed even closer than she was before.

Then she coughed. Or maybe it was just a throat clearing. Or something in-between. Whatever it was, the sound and the narrow space between us inspired me to dig around in a pocket of my fleece and find an old KN95 mask, one of many face coverings I have that hasn’t been getting much use lately.

Things have changed a lot since COVID settled down, thanks to preventative vaccines and post-infection treatments and COVID infections among people that all went together to build, I guess, some degree of immunity among us as a nation.

Or at least it all built some resistance that means fewer deaths, fewer people in the hospital and fewer sick folks at home because of COVID.

So my regular use of masks has waned. And it took me a while, standing there in line at the administration building, to put on my mask. I hesitated for a bit because I knew that donning a face covering in that situation would be an act of separation, as in separating myself from the 30 or 40 people around me, none of whom was wearing a mask.

No, wait, a woman coming away from one of the windows was wearing a mask. Just seeing her inspired me to put my mask on, too. But since that woman was leaving and nobody else wore a mask, I still hesitated. I took some comfort in the fact that I had COVID-19 about 6 weeks earlier and am supposed to have resistance to another COVID infection for three to six months.

That doesn’t make me COVID proof during that period, of course. It just reduces my chances of getting sick. With COVID, at least.

I was thinking about all that when the guy in the line next to mine coughed again. And again.

It wasn’t COVID I was worried about; it was the flu.

And then the woman behind me seemed to edge even closer, as if maybe she thought we might dance a little two-step while we waited. Then she cleared her throat, or whatever, again.

I gave up and finally put on my mask.

In this case, however, my act of self protection wasn’t as much about COVID as it was about the flu.

I hadn’t had my flu shot, you see. I was planning to get it six or seven weeks earlier when something unplanned occurred: I got COVID. It was no fun, but it wasn’t quite as bad as the first COVID case I’d had more than a year earlier.

You can’t get a flu shot while you have COVID or COVID-like symptoms. And after I got over COVID, Mary and I headed off on a vacation to the southwest states. That was followed by a family gathering at a cabin here in the Black Hills. After that, I contracted a nasty cold, which also prevented me from getting the flu shot. And then I was occupied organizing an annual pheasant hunt. So it was November and I still hadn’t managed to squeeze in the shot.

I sure didn’t want to pick up the flu before I got my shot. So I was planning to schedule one at the drug store or a clinic last week when I noticed a press release from the Rapid City-Pennington County Emergency Management with a nice teaser for a headline: “Avoid the Flu - Just Drive Thru”

The sub-head read: “Drive Through Flu POD Event November 15th in Rapid City”

POD, you might know (I didn’t), means point of dispensing. And working with the state Department of Health, local emergency management officials organized the event in which nurses would administer the influenza vaccine. It would also give emergency and health-care specialists experience in handling a POD event, which could be needed someday in a more urgent situation.

The drive-through clinic seemed like an interesting way to get my flu shot, much better than just showing up and sitting glum faced with other people at a regular clinic or pharmacy. And there, of course, you must also face the question: to mask or not to mask.

And even though it meant waiting for a week and fussing around with online registration, the drive-through flu shot clinic also seemed like a good subject for a blog column.

Which is how you and I got where we are right now. Thanks for tagging along so far.

I was thinking about the flu and flu shots and the upcoming drive-through clinic as I waited in line at the courthouse, standing out in the crowd as the only one — once the masked woman left — wearing a face covering.

It’s not like COVID, but it can still be serious

I was also thinking about how the understandable focus on COVID-19 over the last 3 1/2 years has pushed concerns about influenza into the background. And, of course, the flu is a seasonal illness that we’ve been managing with preventative vaccines and post-infection treatments for years — a place we seem to be headed, we hope, with COVID.

But the flu shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially by vulnerable populations such as those with pre-existing health problems and the elderly. More than a century ago, the Spanish Flu (H1N1) killed millions across the world and more than 500,000 in the United States.

That was long before the vaccines and treatments and medical care we have today, especially in advanced nations like the United States. Even so, influenza killed between 12,000 and 52,000 people a year in this country from 2010 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s significantly less than the 1.1 million people who have died of COVID in the U.S. since the pandemic began in early January of 2020. The death rate for COVID has been dropping steadily since vaccines and post-infection treatments were developed and combined with some degree of resistance from the millions of people who were infected but didn’t die.

Also because, it’s so very sad to say, a lot of vulnerable people have already died from the virus.

I’m in good health for a 72-year-old. But I am 72. And I take COVID seriously. I have taken every vaccine and booster that came available, except the one I missed earlier this fall. And I’ll get that one sometime in the next few months, as my resistance from my most recent COVID infection fades.

The COVID vaccines, remember, don’t just reduce our chances of being infected, they help keep us from getting really sick if we do.

I take influenza seriously, too, although not quite as seriously as COVID. And I get my flu shot every year, which is why I was driving past the flu-clinic signs at gate of the fairgrounds a few minutes before my 1:15 p.m. appointment on Wednesday.

After a couple of check-in stations I was directed to drive slowly into the building through an oversized garage-type door, where a flagged lane led toward a makeshift clinic. I was directed to keep moving slowly u[ to a point not far behind the car ahead of me, where I was to stop and put my pickup in park.

And, hey, guess who found his bar code!

There I was greeted by Melanie Watt, who asked if could show her my barcode. Normally that would have been an intimidating question for a technological troglodyte like me. But surprisingly — to me and I’m pretty sure to her — I actually could show my barcode.

State Department of Health Nurse Melanie Watt is ready to give me a flu shot at the drive-up clinic.
Kevin Woster
State Department of Health Nurse Melanie Watt is ready to give me a flu shot at the drive-up clinic.

I’d seen the code earlier in a text I received on my cell phone confirming the appointment I made online at home a day or two earlier. And I called up the text and found the barcode with what I considered to be lightning speed.

“Well, look at you!” Watt said, grinning broadly.

She scanned the code, checked the information and went over to a table loaded with what looked like medical paraphernalia. After a minute or two there, she came back to the window of my pickup with a syringe and a smile.

Then Watt gave me that shot, with hardly a hint of pain.

Bada-bing, bada-boom.

As I drove slowly up to the exit door, a volunteer stopped me to say I could park in an area just outside the door and wait for a while to make sure I didn’t have a reaction to the shot.

“But that’s up to you,” he said.

Other than a sore arm, I’ve never had a reaction to a flu show. So I didn’t wait.

And that was that, for me at least. The drive-through flu-shot clinic went on, however, from its starting time at noon toward the scheduled close at 5:30 p.m.

According to Alexa White, deputy director of emergency management, 117 shots were given during the clinic.

“Not as many as we’d hoped, but still enough to test our process and give us an idea of where our pinch points may be if it was a true POD with an emergency medication dispense and we saw a whole lot more people,” she said.

They had a response plan in case a car stopped working in the line or there was a “fender bender,” White said. They had a plan for people who had started their consent forms online but hadn’t completed them and didn’t have a mobil device. And they had a plan for people with dogs in their vehicles. Troublesome dogs, that is.

There were no fender benders or stalled vehicles. But there were several vehicles with dogs, which didn’t pose any serious issues.

“No, they didn’t cause any problems, but at times they were a little happy to see the new people — the nurses — who were at the window,” White said. “All were friendly, but what if they weren’t? If for any reason the nurse felt unsafe, we would have had the individual turn the car off, get out and leave the dog in the car while they were getting their shot, as opposed to staying in the car and just putting their arm out the window.”

Emergency management has had previous POD events with flu shots, but they were inside in more traditional settings. This was the first drive-through POD. And it was valuable training, something that wasn’t possible with the COVID pandemic.

“We thought the COVID pandemic would bring about opportunities for our office to set up a POD,” White said. “But due to the handling necessary for the vaccine and the schedule of how the vaccine was released and approved for certain portions of the populations over a period of time, the vaccination process was handled by hospitals and clinics, not following established POD plans in local emergency management offices.”

So this POD event mattered, even if it wasn’t quite as busy as it might have been.

“If we had a more steady stream it would have been a better stress test, but it was good to go through the process of setting it all up,” White said. “And the number of people who came through made the event valuable for us.”

It was valuable for me, too. I finally got that overdue shot. And I didn’t even have to get out of my pickup.

Next time, though, I might take my dog.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.