As he sits in his gilded armchair at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, an Arlington, Va., mall, Santa Claus has his fuzzy red suit and hat, his snowy white beard and his stash...
WASHINGTON As he sits in his gilded armchair at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, an Arlington, Va., mall, Santa Claus has his fuzzy red suit and hat, his snowy white beard and his stash of vitamin C tablets to boost his immune system.
What he doesn’t have is a flu shot, and it troubles him.
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Like many shopping-mall Santas, he spends his day hoisting legions of tots onto his lap for a Christmas tête-à-tête. The week before Christmas typically is the busiest, and the jolly old soul will have to brave little ones’ coughs, sneezes and runny noses to hear their holiday wish lists.
“I can assure you most Santas are discontented with the current situation,” Santa said last week. He declined to give his name, citing a policy of his employer.
Tom Kliner, 46, who plays Santa at special events in British Columbia, said the shortage of flu vaccine this fall has been a hot topic on the Web site he runs called Santa’s Across the Globe, which is aimed at working Santas.
“Some guys have been very concerned about it,” he said. “A lot of the Santas are older, and health is a concern.”
This year’s flu vaccination effort was thrown into turmoil in the fall, after British officials discovered manufacturing problems at Chiron Corp.’s Liverpool, England, factory, which was to provide half of the expected U.S. supply of flu shots.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would ease restrictions Jan. 3 on who should receive the vaccine, dropping the minimum age from 65 to 50. Federal officials were concerned that tens of thousands of doses could go to waste because demand has been lower than expected.
But the move comes too late for many Santas, who said they will have bounced thousands of children on their knees by that time.
Nick Pallotto, 62, who plays Santa at Regency Square Mall in Richmond, Va., said he tried to get a shot at three clinics in Colorado Springs, Colo., his hometown, and was denied each time. Once, he tried to use his Christmas clout with a nurse, but she would not budge.
“They wouldn’t give it to me because I wasn’t old enough,” he said. “I tried to explain to her that I was Santa, and she said, ‘Sorry.’ ” A retirement home in Colorado eventually gave him a shot.
At 76, Hugh Hoffman knew he was eligible for the vaccine but was worried about the small supply, especially because he’s the Santa who brings the holiday spirit to Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
So when his pharmacist called him in October and told him there was only enough for 350 shots, Hoffman got in line at 5 a.m. and waited more than seven hours to make sure he got one.
Some Santas are unconcerned. David Wagner, 63, who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said he is “not a doctor person.” In the half-dozen years he has donned his fuzzy red suit, he has never gotten a flu shot and he has never gotten the flu. Many Santas interviewed said they are taking other precautions to avoid getting sick. Some wash their hands frequently and wear white gloves, which they say cut down on the spread of germs. Others regularly dry-clean their suits and try to get plenty of rest.
Last year, when the Florida man who plays Santa at Westfield Shoppingtown in Montgomery County, Md., caught a 24-hour bug, he soldiered on anyway. His wife, who plays Mrs. Claus, fed him beef broth until he felt better. Both are prohibited from disclosing their names by their company.
This year, he has stayed healthy. But if he does get sick, this Santa said, the most important thing is never to stop being Santa.
“The Santa image is for the children, and we try to enhance it for the children,” he said from his armchair as the line to take a photo with him began to form. “And one wrong word can ruin it.”