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Downtown: Swine flu outbreak has Santa taking extra precautions at Newport Mall
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Swine flu outbreak has Santa taking extra precautions at N.J. malls

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By Tanya Drobness/The Star-Ledger
December 12, 2009

ROCKAWAY -- In response to the H1N1 outbreak this year, and because children are at increased risk of becoming infected, Santa stations at malls throughout New Jersey are "Santa-tizing," using extra precautions to prevent spreading germs.

Santa is using hand sanitizers, changing his gloves and even washing his whiskers regularly. The concern about infection is valid, officials say, because a typical mall Santa could see up to 10,000 children during the holiday season.

santa-swine-flu.JPGJerry McCrea/The Star-LedgerSanta changes his long white gloves at regular intervals for purposes of maximum health precaution while working at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall.

"A lot of people are worried about that. You don?t want to transmit anything to these little kids," said the volunteer Santa at Rockaway Townsquare mall, who received his H1N1 flu vaccination on Nov. 1. He sees about 350 children every day. "I want to be as safe as possible."

Unlike the seasonal flu, which is comprised of several different strains of flu, H1N1 is a new, different strain of virus that tends to infect younger victims. At least 34 people in New Jersey have died from complications of swine flu, state officials said.

Swine flu and New Jersey

Under a new protocol at several malls, hand sanitizers have been placed at the entrances and exits of Santa displays, and all surfaces, from the cash wraps to the photo counters, are being regularly disinfected.

In addition, Santa?s suits are sent to the cleaners every two to three days, as opposed to previous years when it was about every three to four days, said Ruth Rosenquist, a spokeswoman for Noerr Programs, a Colorado company that arranges for Santas and photographer elves to visit Simon Malls, including seven in New Jersey ? Rockaway Townsquare, Menlo Park Mall in Edison, Ocean County Mall in Toms River, The Shops at Riverside in Hackensack, Brunswick Square in East Brunswick, Livingston Mall and Newport Centre in Jersey City.

"We?ve just stepped it up just to keep everybody safe," Rosenquist said.

Yuletide infection control is everywhere. At the Mall at Short Hills, hand sanitizers have been installed right on the Santa set.

"From what I can tell, the parents and kids seem to be using it," said the mall Santa, who is changing his gloves every hour or two to prevent the spread of infection.

At Bridgewater Commons in Somerset County, hand sanitizer dispensers were placed throughout the mall months ago in response to H1N1, said Amy Harris, the mall?s marketing manager. A bottle of hand sanitizer sits next to Santa?s chair. That Santa, who sees about 100 children a day, doesn?t wear gloves so he can frequently sanitize.

"It?s not just because of the swine flu. It?s also because of this time of year," Harris said.

santa-rockaway.JPGJerry McCrea/The Star-LedgerSanta stops to greet 3-year-old Sofia Nefissi of Jefferson Twp. at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall.

While many parents were taking advantage of the sanitizer, some aren?t too concerned.

"It?s a legitimate health concern. But to a certain degree, it?s been blown out of proportion," said Robert Gerdes, 34, of Boonton, who with his wife, Allyson, brought their 7-month-old daughter, Abigail, to see Santa at the mall in Rockaway last week.

Ernie Berger, president and founder of Santa America, a Santa volunteer organization based in Atlanta, thinks the concern is legitimate. In addition to providing sanitizer, he is urging parents to keep sick children home, and asking that children cough into their sleeves.

Since 90 percent of the volunteer Santas have real beards, Berger also suggests that Santa wash his face and whiskers during breaks. He even suggests that Santa get vaccinated against H1N1 now, just like other health care workers or caregivers.

Last month, Berger asked Republican Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama to have Santas moved up on the priority list.

The congressman?s staff is "looking in it," said Mike Lewis, Bonner?s press secretary. "We will find out what we can do to help."

State health officials say Santa should get the H1N1 vaccine if he falls into a "target" group, as in people younger than 64 with underlying health conditions.

As for his small visitors, Santa need not worry too much, said Deputy Health and Senior Services Commissioner Susan Walsh.

"It?s likely that children visiting Santas have already been vaccinated," Walsh said.

Posted on: 2009/12/13 10:41

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