Despite warnings, many in the District fear, decline to get H1N1 vaccine

"The vaccine fell out of the sky," says Queen McKnight, a pregnant psychology student who isn't getting the shot. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

The gymnasium known as the Lion's Den was nearly empty. Nurses primed with syringes waited at tables set up on the Kelly Miller Middle School's basketball court. Nearly an hour before closing time, there was plenty of parking, Red Cross volunteers had no takers for bottled water and there was no line for a swine flu shot.

"Three minutes," said Kiara Young, a Howard University biology student. Elsewhere in the Washington region, it could take hours or days, but not in this District neighborhood east of the Anacostia.

As the D.C. government readies 8,000 doses for a massive immunization campaign Saturday, some residents in the city's most disadvantaged neighborhoods are ignoring a vaccination push that President Obama says is critical for keeping Americans healthy.

"Swine flu is not everyone's top priority," said John Lewis, a D.C. Housing Authority official who runs educational services for residents near the school. "It's jobs. It's safety."

A shooting last week in the school neighborhood left two dead and three injured.

Some residents from more affluent quarters of the District made their way to Kelly Miller just before closing. One mother rushed her infant there after getting e-mail intelligence on her BlackBerry during dinner. Attorney Paul Royer and his wife, Denise, made it just before closing. Their 3-year-old daughter got the shot, but they were turned away.

"They're saying they need to ration, and there's nobody here," Paul Royer said. Although the Royers are a priority according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because they are caring for an infant younger than 6 months, the District has limited public clinics at schools to pregnant women and people up to 24 years old because of a national vaccine shortage.

Aversion to the vaccine is a challenge for public health workers that cuts across demographic boundaries. A recent Washington Post poll found more than 60 percent of Americans don't plan to get vaccinated.

In a Minnesota Avenue strip mall a mile from the middle school Friday, that challenge was sitting in rows of blue plastic chairs at the Chartered Family Health Center, where the vaccine was available. "If you think you have the flu, please take a mask," read a sign on the wall.

"We're not going to up and run and take the shots when they say to take them," said J.L. Lawrence, a communications student at Bowie State University. He lives in the District and brought his sons, ages 1 and 2, in for their regular checkups, but not the H1N1 vaccine.

Queen McKnight, a psychology student at Montgomery College, reached for a cellphone metaphor to explain why she's declining for now. She's pregnant and lives in Oxon Hill.

"I compare it to the Cricket store. One morning we woke up, and there was a Cricket store on every corner, like liquor stores," she said. "The vaccine fell out of the sky. One day we woke up and everyone was saying . . . 'You must have it. You could die if you don't get it.' It came on too fast. If it's my time, I'm going to die anyway."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company