Santa's wish list: Flu shot & hand sanitizer

Swine flu concerns have working Santa Clauses taking extra precautions as they hit the malls to greet thousands of kids.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, senior writer

Working Santa Greg Winters said his doctor told him he was a "top priority" for the H1N1 vaccination this year as he will probably meet thousands of kids through Christmas.
Santa Tim Connaghan said parents should not bring their children to meet Santa if they are sick.

NEW YORK ( -- Santa Claus is a marked man.

As thousands of kids line up each day until Christmas Eve to meet the burly, bearded man in his red suit, he'll be sneezed on up to 15 times a day, have his beard pulled numerous times and possibly even be peed on.

On top of that, Santa's got one more work-related hazard on his mind: swine flu.

Greg Winters, 54, a working Santa from Branson, Mo., got his H1N1 vaccination about a month ago.

Should all working Santas get the H1N1 shot? "Absolutely," he said.

Winters said his doctor suggested that he get the shot, even calling him a "critical case."

"He asked me how many kids I'll see this year. I said thousands, and he immediately said I was a top priority for the shot," he said.

In fact, Winters said his doctor told him that he would have called him anyway for the shot.

"I don't want to catch anything, but God forbid I gave [the flu] to the children," he said.

How vulnerable is Santa?

Although Winters got the vaccine, recent news reports have suggested that getting the shot has proven to be more difficult for Santas in some states.

That's because the vaccine is in limited supply and Santas are not officially in the priority high-risk group as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC recommends that the H1N1 vaccine be first given to pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old, and people ages 25 through 64 years of age who are at a higher risk because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

"We understand that workers who are in close contact with children, (Santas, teachers, etc.) may be concerned about getting infected with the H1N1 virus, and thus would like to be considered in the priority groups for vaccination," Arleen Porcell-Pharr, public affairs specialist with the CDC wrote in an e-mail.

"However, our recommendations on who should first get vaccinated are based on scientific evidence on who is being most affected by the disease," she said.

At the same time, Porcell-Pharr told that the CDC's guidelines are recommendations.

"Santas can still go to their doctors and say that they want the vaccination," she said. "It's ideal if they can get it."

Swine flu is a big topic at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich., where 70 Santas were trained for this year's holiday season.

The school, which dates back to 1937 and considers itself the "oldest school dedicated to the art of portraying Santa Claus," has a total base of about 500 Santas who work in 35 states.

Holly Valent, the registrar, said the school had two doctors come in to discuss precautions regarding the swine flu.

"One doctor told the class they should get the vaccination, but the other doctor said they don't need it," said Valent.

She said some of the school's Santas have gotten the H1N1 shot while others have not. She did not provide specific numbers.

How many kids will Santa come into contact with this year? Valent said the Santa Claus School itself will see about 30,000 kids from Dec. 1 to Dec. 23.

"At malls, it's hundreds of kids in an eight-hour period a day," she said, adding that the number jumps to more than a thousand a day closer to Christmas.

Still, Valent said the school can only suggest to working Santas to get the shot. "We can't force them to get it."

'Best practices' against the flu

A organization called the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, which has more than 700 members, maintains that its members have been able to get the H1N1 vaccine despite not being in the priority group for it.

The group's president, Nicholas Trolli, said when its members go to the doctor's office, they check the box that asks if they are working with a child under 6 months of age.

"They get priority for the vaccination the same way a daycare worker does," Trolli said.

Tim Connaghan, 62, a working Santa for 40 years, also runs a training school every year for hundreds of Santas. Connaghan said he has not heard from his students that they are having problems getting the H1N1 vaccine other than if it is unavailable in their area.

Jeff Germann, 48, from Springfield, Mo., is a visiting Santa to a local hospital and private events.

Germann sees between 200 to 400 kids, or more, each holiday season.

One of his charity events, called 'Breakfast with Santa" at a hospital cafe, was cancelled this year as a precautionary measure due to swine flu concerns. "It was my favorite thing to do," he said.

Still, that hasn't convinced him to get the vaccination although he did get his regular seasonal flu shot. "Personally, I'm afraid to get it," he said. "I hear stories about people who are getting sick from the shot."

Instead, Germann is taking other precautions similar to what several malls and Santa training schools are putting in place this year.

For instance, one of the big Santa vendors to malls is asking all its Santas to not wear white gloves. Trolli said the reasoning behind that is that it makes it easier for Santas to apply hand sanitizer.

Malls are requiring hand sanitizing stations wherever Santa sets up shop and that Santas dryclean their suits frequently. Connaghan also said parents should not bring their children to meet Santa if they are sick.

"We want to protect the children," said Trolli.

Despite the swine flu concerns, Trolli said "Santa will still be Santa this year, and bring a little bit of love and joy to children." To top of page

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