updated 12/16/2003 11:04:12 AM ET 2003-12-16T16:04:12

A severe flu outbreak blamed in the deaths of at least 20 children isn’t keeping some parents from taking their youngsters on the annual visit to Santa Claus.

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“I’m not gonna hide over it, although I realize it is more serious this year,” said Wendy Lamb of Plattsmouth. She and her children, ages 2, 3, and 5, recently waited in a long line to see Santa at Westroads Mall in Omaha.

Monica Reyes of Albuquerque, N.M., is not changing her plans to take her two children, ages 4 and 8, to see Santa this weekend, especially since they have had their flu shots.

“The fear of catching something doesn’t keep us from doing the things we like to do,” Reyes said.

The number of states with widespread infections has nearly doubled to 24 in the past week, and the season has not yet peaked nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal government recently announced it is scrambling to ship 100,000 adult vaccine doses to combat shortages of flu vaccine. Another 150,000 child vaccines are expected in January. The government on Monday said it was buying an additional 375,000 flu shots for adults.

At the Cherry Creek Shopping Center in Denver, lines to see Santa have stretched to nearly an hour’s wait on weekends. General Manager Nick LeMasters said he doesn’t expect the lines will be any shorter due to the outbreak.

“I think it’s unlikely that the consumer ... is going to deny their child that opportunity,” he said.
Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman with the International Council of Shopping Centers, said it’s business as usual for Santa operations in malls across the country.

Last year, each mall averaged more than 8,000 visits to Santa and Kavanagh said he didn’t expect the numbers to be much different this year.

“The flu is something we deal with every year,” Kavanagh said.

The Santas have several methods for staying healthy and avoiding the spread of germs.
Charlie Russell, spokesman with The Noerr Programs Inc. of Golden, Colo., which contracts out Santas to malls nationwide, said employees are not required to get flu shots, but many do anyway.

Elves at Westroads Mall, which gets its Santas from St. Louis-based Santas Plus, use disinfectant spray on Santa’s chair each night and wash his suit frequently, said Charlene Bentzinger, 19, one of Santa’s helpers.

Del Peck, who has played Pioneer Santa at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney for two years, said he hasn’t gotten a flu shot and simply plans to pace himself so he doesn’t get run down.

He suggests parents of sick children send or deliver their child’s wish list instead of risking an in-person visit.

“I think (a written list) is a good way to communicate if the child is sick and can’t be out and about,” Peck said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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