It is 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, and my wife, Sara, and I are driving up Georgia Avenue toward Olney. Our destination: Shoppers Food Warehouse on Route 108. Our mission: to get our flu shots. The big question: Will we arrive in time?
This is our third try at getting flu shots. We tried the Giant Food stores at Leisure World in Silver Spring and on Arlington Road in Bethesda. At both places, we were overwhelmed by the huge number of people who arrived before we did. So we gave up.
In the past, getting our annual flu shots was a simple matter. We visited our doctors' offices, rolled up our sleeves and were on our way. This year, our family doctor ordered 1,000 doses of the vaccine but received none. Sara's oncologist had a small supply of the vaccine on hand but needed it for patients receiving chemotherapy.
Our doctors urged us to try to get flu shots elsewhere. I am 77 and a heart patient. Sara is 75 and has had cancer twice. But as far as I could tell, the only place to get the shots would be at in-store clinics where Maxim Health Systems of Columbia was providing the vaccine and the nurses to give the shots.
Even after we failed twice to get flu shots, I remained optimistic. The Maxim schedule showed multiple clinics and a schedule that went into November. But that hope evaporated when Maxim postponed all clinics after Oct. 16 until further notice. [Yesterday, it canceled them.]
That meant we would have to get our shots quickly or we'd be out of luck. Shoppers Food Warehouse in Olney, about five miles from our home in Silver Spring, was scheduled to give shots from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday -- the last day. But we knew that, as time went by, fewer and fewer vaccines were available at each location. Thus, if we wanted the vaccine, we would have to get to the store early -- very early.
So we set the alarm for 4 a.m. -- having laid out our clothes the night before so we could make a hasty departure. We were on our way by 4:30, and because all the traffic lights on Georgia Avenue were on flash, we got to the store by 4:45. We were early. But we didn't know if we were early enough.
It was an eerie scene. In the dark, a line of people and chairs -- beach chairs, deck chairs, bridge chairs and more than a few wheelchairs -- stretched from the front door to the side of the building. The elderly crowd sat there, many wrapped in blankets, shivering and waiting for the doors to open. Sara and I got in line, and then I walked to the front to count heads. The first man in line, in a sleeping bag, had arrived at midnight.
I counted about 55 people in front us. Soon, there was an equal number of people behind us -- and more kept coming. At 5:30 a.m., a manager came out to tell us that the store had only 175 doses of the vaccine available. That meant that some people in line wouldn't make the cut.
When the doors opened at 6 a.m., we walked in and were given numbers -- Sara was No. 60, I got No. 61. The store offered everyone orange juice, coffee and doughnuts, and we settled down to wait until the nurses began giving the shots at 9 a.m. The mood of the people around me was a mixture of relief that they would get their shots and astonishment at what they found themselves doing in the middle of the night.
We finally got our shots about 10:30 a.m. I don't know how many other people tried but were too late. But I know how they felt: angry, frustrated and unable to figure out why our public health officials could permit the flu vaccination program to get so messed up.
When Sara and I had left home that morning, we knew it would be chilly, and we dressed warmly -- but, unfortunately, not warmly enough. Standing in line for more than an hour in 45-degree weather, with a brisk, damp wind blowing, made us shiver. So I may not get the flu. But I'm starting to sneeze, and I think I may have caught cold.
Stan Hinden is the former author of The Washington Post's "Retirement Journal" column.