It may be spring, but swine flu is still around. It's on the rise in some Southeastern states, and many people still haven't gotten the vaccine. California has come up with a novel approach to reach Latinos, a particularly vulnerable population. Public health officials are opening makeshift clinics at popular weekend swap meets such as the Kern County Fairgrounds in Bakersfield.
The fairgrounds are crowded on Sundays with people looking for bargains on clothing, mattresses and electronics. It almost feels like Mexico -- the air is thick with the hot, fried scent of churros, and cowboy boots come in all sizes.
And today there's an unusual find: free vaccines.
For The Whole Family
Nurses with the Kern County Public Health Department are giving out the free H1N1 shots. People line up to get the vaccines across from stands hawking used car parts and leather belts. Yoshio Moncada of Bakersfield got his flu shot, along with his wife and three little girls.
"It was actually two reasons why we showed up today," Moncada said laughing. "For the shin guards and for the flu shot."
Moncada says that even though he has health insurance, finding time to get off work and get his whole family to the doctor was hard. And if the shots weren't here at the swap meet, would Moncada and his family get vaccinated?
"To be honest, no," Moncada said. "I would just overpass it, just like I've been doing ever since it came out. But I come every weekend, so it was easy for me to get it."
Nurse Nona Goossen says bringing the shots to the swap meet is making a difference.
"It's helping a lot," she says. "We're using up a lot more vaccines than we would of if we had them just coming in to our clinics -- because people don't think it's flu season right now."
Reaching Vulnerable Populations
Goossen says up to 1,000 people were vaccinated at the swap meet on a recent Sunday. She says they're giving out way more vaccines here than at their traditional clinics. And public health experts say the more people vaccinated, the better.
"We believe that we are not yet out of the woods in terms of the risk for H1N1," says Dr. Gil Chavez, of the California Department of Public Health.
Chavez says H1N1 rates are currently low. But to keep the virus at bay, it's important to bring vaccines to vulnerable populations. In California, he says, Latinos are twice as likely to be hospitalized or die from swine flu.
"If you can find a location where you get a large segment of the Latino community, and you can offer them vaccine in a way that is not threatening and safe, I think that it is a very good thing to do," Chavez says.
Flu Season Ongoing In Some Areas
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still encouraging anyone who hasn't had the shot to get one. Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC says swine flu activity could pick up again. Last year at this time scientists saw the swine flu outbreak take off.
Now, Schuchat says, Georgia and a few other states in the Southeast are reporting an uptick in H1N1 cases.
"We may see situations like what we're seeing in Georgia, where ongoing vaccinations could be very beneficial," says Schuchat. So what we're really asking is for this vaccine to continue to be used."
According to CDC numbers, about a third of the vaccines produced could go unused. But health officials are still trying to give out their leftover doses to anyone who wants the vaccine. To help state and local health departments fight H1N1, Congress approved $1.5 billion last year. But the clock is ticking -- the money runs out in July, so there's extra incentive for health officials to move the vaccines any way they can.