The line for flu shots started by Aisle 3 and the birthday cards yesterday, stretched past the milk and juice shelves, the eggs, cheese and lunch meats, then turned a sharp right at poultry and continued up to the bakery.
By 5 p.m. at this Safeway in Greenbelt, which hosted one of the few area vaccination clinics not canceled, more than 100 people had waited well over two hours. Some were more good-natured about it than others -- and had even brought a folding chair for their wait or a blanket or extra jacket for their time near the refrigerator sections -- but even the grumpy ones weren't about to leave. It wasn't worth the risk of not finding the vaccine later and getting sick this winter.
"The last time I had the flu, I talked to the angels," said a very patient William Davenport of Lanham, who with his wife, Anita, had moved almost up to the front. "We'll be in line as long as we need to be."
The Interfirst health group supplying staff for the clinic, in conjunction with Safeway, decided to carry on with this and three other locations with dates already promoted through tomorrow. Staff members knew they'd face crowds because of the government announcement Tuesday that contamination at a Liverpool manufacturing plant had cut the U.S. vaccination supply nearly in half.
At the Greenbelt Safeway, as well as one on Piney Branch Road in Northwest Washington, the nurses doing the work yesterday said they seemed to have an adequate number of doses for everyone who arrived by the end of the scheduled four hours.
Not so at the Giant Food grocery near the vast senior community of Leisure World in Silver Spring, where one would-be recipient said he joined nearly 700 others in line, stood and waited -- and never got a shot.
The official deliberation moves this morning to Capitol Hill, where an emergency hearing will focus on how critical the shortage is nationally and how quickly anything can be done to mitigate it. A committee spokesman said Virginia's health commissioner will discuss his state's situation; all of its adult dose order was coming from Chiron Corp., the company that British authorities suspended from further production because of potential contamination.
Federal officials have asked that healthy Americans refrain from seeking vaccinations so the 55 million doses that now must stretch from coast to coast will be adequate for people at highest risk from the virus.
The vast majority of those in line in Greenbelt fell into the first risk group -- over 65. Some who came in wheelchairs or with walkers or oxygen also checked off various other conditions, including asthma or lung or heart disease.
"I assumed it'd be a long line, but I didn't assume it would be this long," said Terry Devaney, sitting down because he is just three weeks past a hip replacement. Every few minutes, he'd scoot his lawn chair forward, behind Leamon Lee, a newfound friend who'd upended a brown plastic Safeway basket to use as a stool.
"We've got a bet going on 6-to-1 odds that he's not going to be able to get up," joked Devaney, pointing at Lee. Lots of laughs all around them, but not when the conversation went back to their shots.
"They say if you don't get [one], you're in trouble," said Mickey Devaney, whose walker, a concession to her heart disease, paced her husband's progress. Then nearly one in two doses suddenly becomes unavailable. "It's scary."