As Yule Approaches, Santas Seek H1N1 Help

Holiday season is colliding with swine flu season, and that has Santas concerned. The cheerful Christmas ambassadors come in contact with millions of children each year, and many are being advised to take special precautions. One Santa organization has petitioned a member of Congress to help elevate them to a priority status for the H1N1 vaccine. Ernest Berger, president of the nonprofit volunteer group Santa America, says Santas should be considered seriously for the vaccine because of their close contact with large groups of children.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Parents are worried about kids and swine flu, so too are Santas. Between now and Christmas day, those jolly ambassadors of holiday cheer will come into contact with millions of children, some naughty, some nice and some sick. Hand sanitizers combined with elfin magic may not be enough to protect them from infection. So, some Santas are asking for special priority in getting the H1N1 vaccine.

One of them is Ernest Berger or Santa Ernest as he prefers to be called. He's the president of Santa America, that's an organization overseeing about 200 Santas who visit sick children and families in crisis. And Santa Ernest joins me now from his headquarters in Daphne, Alabama. Welcome to the program.

ERNEST BERGER: Well, thank you, Melissa. It's good to be with you.

BLOCK: And how concerned are your fellow Santas about swine flu?

BERGER: Well, we're very concerned. I mean, swine flu has been with us for a while, Melissa. And we have adjusted our visit procedures to try to keep infection down to a minimum. As you know, we're taking the gloves off this year and we're going to be using hand sanitizer, but we're going to make hand sanitizing a part of the Santa visit ritual. We want this to be a positive experience for our children and not detract from the joy of visiting with Santa. Our particular Santas are unique in that we visit children all year long. So, we're still going to have to deal with H1N1 in January, February of 2010 and beyond.

BLOCK: Now, let me back you up just a little bit. You said you're going to make hand sanitizer a part of the ritual. You're talking about both for Santa and for the kid?

BERGER: Absolutely. We're going to lead by example and try to make it fun. So, next time mommy or daddy asks for a child to sanitize their hands, we hope they turn and say, yes, because Santa showed me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That man in the red suit says it's okay.

BERGER: Power beyond belief, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you're taking the gloves off so that you can sanitize your hands or wash your hands.

BERGER: Exactly. The gloves, you know, are only good for one touch on one child, and they're a source of contamination. So, the other thing we're going to recommend to our Santas is that we cut the cycle for dry cleaning our Santa outfit in half.

BLOCK: But you want more. You want priority for Santas to get the vaccine. What are you doing about that?

BERGER: Well, first, I just want to say that we're not looking for priority. What we wanted to do is be put on an even foot with health care providers and caregivers, teachers and others who are getting H1N1 because of their contact with children. While it's not intuitive, Melissa, Santa will see more children during the holiday season than probably any other person or profession in the country.

BLOCK: And if you had to tell a parent who might be thinking maybe this is the year to just avoid sitting on Santa's lap because of H1N1, what would you tell them?

BERGER: I would tell them that your child likely goes to school, goes to a church or a synagogue, goes to sporting events, goes shopping with you, this is something that you can't isolate your child from contact with groups of people. What we do ask our parents to consider is just common sense. If your child is symptomatic, don't bring the child to a Santa Claus situation where there are other families and other children. Let the child recover. Santa will be there. We will assure every parent that when their child is with Santa Claus, that child is the most important child in the universe.

BLOCK: Well, Ernest Berger, Santa Ernest, thanks very much.

BERGER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: Ernest Berger is president of Santa America.

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