Not deemed worthy of early H1N1 flu vaccination, mall Santas are counting on hand sanitizers and the kindness of strangers (to keep their sick children at home).
Distressed over not being able to get on the priority list for H1N1 flu shots, Santa's helpers are taking matters into their own hands. The gloves, literally, are coming off.
"I'm a gloveless Santa this year," said "Santa Carlucci," aka Carl Immediato of Bloomington, "because that way I can use hand sanitizers."
His partner-in-alms, "Santa Tom," aka Tom Pierce of Outing, Minn., is going with more gloves, or none at all. "I'm bringing multiple gloves and a quart jar of hand sanitizer to every event," he said. "Whenever I handle a baby, I take the gloves off and Purell my hands."
The two St. Nicks, who work mostly private events, were frustrated over not being able to move up the H1NI immunization priority list. "We thought we would get to the head of the line," said Immediato, "but I have requested a shot at numerous places and been shot down."
Instead, Santas are grouped with others who frequently work with children, such as child-care providers and teachers.
"We understand that anyone working with children is concerned," said Arleen Porcell-Pharr, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "Teachers ask the same question. Law-enforcement officers ask the same question.
"But we go by the evidence of people who are most at risk. And the scientific evidence indicates that [Santas] don't need to be in the priority group."
Despite requests from burly guys with white beards, "we're following the CDC's protocols," said Jeremiah Whitten, media relations director for Park Nicollet Clinic.
If you're sick, stay home
So the Santa who will be channeling little Justin's or Jessica's wish list at the mall or the party is unlikely to have been immunized. But at local malls, hand cleaners are almost as ubiquitous as the pa-rumpa-pum-pum Muzak. "You're seeing hand sanitizers where you've never seen them before," said Joan Suko, general manager of Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka. "It's getting to where I feel like I should be a doctor."
Heightened awareness is helping, Suko said. Retailers and red-suit-wearers are counting on parents doing their part to ensure that the only thing being spread this season is goodwill.
"The most important thing is that people remember to stay home if you're sick," said Kris Ehresmann, director for infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health. "If you've got kids with runny noses, a cough, whatever, stay home, whether it's school or visiting Santa."
At this point, she added, "the department has not made a recommendation to avoid sitting on Santa's lap."
Nor are area department stores or malls monitoring the lines, checking for sniffling youngsters waiting to see the big guy. "Santa Tom" Pierce is asking that someone do that at his private parties -- "except for this one event for doctors' kids."
Pierce had one cancellation from a medical organization "because they have a lot of high-risk people." Like another 100 or so local Santas, he is counting on the kindness of strangers. "If parents have a kid they think might be coming down with this, little Johnny or Susie is staying at home," he said. "We're lucky in Minnesota that parents are that way."
Santas' game plan
Still, Kris Kringles throughout the land have been communicating for months about dealing with this particular pandemic. "We started last summer with the e-mails about where to get gloves and doing that chicken-wing cough into the arm," Pierce said.
Immediato pointed out that Santa's helpers find themselves in this position every year. "Megadoses of vitamin C and megadoses of multivitamins are standard fare for us at this time of year," he said.
Doing largely seasonal work, after all, makes it essential that these guys stay healthy during this stretch.
"I can't remember the last guy who told me he was down with the flu," said Immediato. "I typically get sick two weeks after Christmas. I don't know it it's psychosomatic, or stress and relief. And it's upper respiratory, bronchial, not the flu."
So how long has it been since this Santa came down with influenza? "Not since the big swine-flu epidemic in the 1970s," he said, with a ho ho ho.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643