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Shot in the arm for busy motorists

Times Staff Writer

Instead of fast food, it was fast flu shots Friday for hundreds of motorists converging on drive-through vaccination clinics at community colleges in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

At Moorpark College, about 100 cars idled in the morning chill, snaking around orange traffic cones as drivers inched to the front of the line. Over the next four hours, nurses there administered more than 500 doses of flu vaccine. At College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, 1,076 people were vaccinated, said Deborah Davenport, a director of community services for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“It’s free and I get to stay in my car,” said Summer Healthcote, her 7-year-old son, Andrew, strapped into a booster seat in the back of a green Suburban at the Moorpark campus. “I couldn’t pass it up.”

But public health officials said the one-day exercise wasn’t designed to cater to Southern California’s time-strapped, car-crazed culture. If the drive-through concept proves successful, they said, it could become the model for speedily inoculating entire cities in the event of a deadly pandemic or bioterrorism.

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“This is how we would vaccinate the entire population of Ventura County in 48 to 72 hours if necessary,” said Dan Wall, a spokesman for the Ventura County Public Health Department. “This is a good opportunity to test it out.”

Vaccines at Friday’s test run were free. Flu shots delivered car-side are not entirely new. Hospitals have offered them in the past at scattered clinics in order to inoculate older people and those with limited mobility.

But mass vaccinations have begun cropping up in recent years in response to 9/11 and heightened awareness about the potential for bioterrorism or a widespread viral outbreak, such as smallpox. Many of the clinics are funded by state and federal anti-terrorism grants because they are viewed as preparatory drills, officials said.

Los Angeles County’s Public Health Department pioneered the model with a Santa Clarita clinic last year. Orange County health officials also gave it a try, with mixed results. Logistical problems can quickly throw a monkey wrench into plans, officials said.

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Traffic control is crucial, said Howard Sutter, spokesman for the Orange County Health Care Agency. At Cal State Fullerton last year, several “walk-ups” weaved through the lines of cars to see if they could get shots, he said.

“You have the potential for an incident even though we’ve never had one,” Sutter said.

With greater control of perimeters, large drive-through clinics earlier this month at Cypress College and Soka University in Aliso Viejo went smoothly, he said. Orange County officials set up a separate area just for walk-up patients, Sutter said.

In Los Angeles County, the biggest logistical challenge is traffic. Davenport, of the county Public Health Department, said traffic engineers are asked to identify sites that are convenient for motorists and to design a traffic-flow plan for each clinic.

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“If the line is built right, you can pull people out to fill out forms and then ease them back in once they’re done,” she said. “That alleviates backups. But you have to keep an eye out so people don’t drift into each other’s bumpers.”

Also, after a couple of nurses almost got bitten, motorists with dogs now are asked to step out of their vehicles for their shots, Davenport said.

One issue health officials have tiptoed around is whether the pollution emitted by all the idling cars should be cause for concern. Davenport said most cars move through so quickly -- in three to five minutes -- that there isn’t a lot of idling.

Orange County’s Sutter said the exhaust is nothing out of the ordinary.

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“I doubt that one exposure would be more than you get driving through a fast-food restaurant,” he said.

At the Moorpark clinic, motorists just seemed grateful for the convenience.

Frederick Lehmkuhl, 58, a retired aerospace technician, was the first to roll through. As he moved through the line, he stopped at two checkpoints, the first to fill out a short form and the second to answer a few medical questions. When he pulled into the inoculation area, a white-coated student nurse walked up to the driver’s side and asked him to pull up his sleeve.

Lehmkuhl complied, sticking his arm out the window for a shot. Within a minute, he was driving toward a final checkpoint, where workers made sure he was not having a bad reaction to the injection before sending him on his way. It was “pretty well organized,” Lehmkuhl said.

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“I hate to be pessimistic but it will just be some time before we have a dirty bomb or an outbreak of anthrax,” he said. “The community needs to be prepared.”

The cars moved a bit slowly at first, hampered by a traffic bottleneck that officials soon fixed. Once things got rolling, the student nurses and volunteers directing traffic were able to get most cars through in about 15 minutes.

The wait got even shorter, about eight minutes, once the morning rush had passed. David Lambert, 65, a retired LAPD officer, arrived mid-morning on his sparkling green-and-white Honda Shadow motorcycle. He pushed the bike through the line, waiting his turn.

“This is great,” he said as the sun rose over golden hills and puffy white clouds skidded by. “You can go to Costco and get in line. Or you can come here and enjoy the beautiful day.”

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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What to do

Here are some basic flu prevention tips:

* Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

* When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick. If

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possible, stay home from work, school and errands while you are sick.

* Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

* Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, which would spread the germs.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Where to go

Flu vaccine is expected to be plentiful this season. Shots are available from a number of public and private clinics now through December. To find a clinic:

Public clinics

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* Los Angeles County: www.lapublichealth.org

* Orange County: www.ochealthinfo.com

* Riverside County: www.rivcoph.org

* San Bernardino County: www.co.san-bernardino. ca.us/pubhlth

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* Ventura County: www.vchca.org

Private clinics

Anywhere in California:

www.FluClinicLocator.org

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