TAMPA — Victoria, an infant in green pajamas, sat in Santa's lap Wednesday at WestShore Plaza representing both the joys and dangers of playing jolly old Saint Nick.
The girl didn't pout and she didn't cry. But when she reached for Santa's Christmas necklace and stuck it in her mouth, an alarmed look crossed Santa's bespectacled eyes.
'Tis the season for swine flu. And the girl, like all children, carries plenty of naughty germs.
"Now don't put that in your mouth," white-bearded Jack McElhinney said gently while pulling the necklace out.
McElhinney is known in his profession as the "Iron Santa." Seven days a week for 16 holiday seasons, the Lutz senior has not missed a day as the WestShore mall Santa. But this year, the H1N1 scare has Santas nationwide shaking in their sooty black boots.
"If the Santas across the country get sick, there's going to be a lot of disappointed kids around the world," McElhinney said. "When you think of it, I get exposed to every illness known to man and then some. I'm in a high-risk category here."
That's why many Santas think they should become a priority group to receive swine flu vaccines, which are in limited supply. Santa America, a national group, even asked an Alabama congressman for legislative help last week.
Around here, the Hillsborough County Health Department plans to stick to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on who should get the vaccine: pregnant women, students, people with chronic conditions and health care and emergency workers.
Stephen Huard, department spokesman, didn't need to check the list twice. "Santas didn't make the priority list," he said.
Same goes for Pinellas County.
"I can picture Santa saying, 'You've been naughty, where's my shot?' " said Maggie Hall, health department spokeswoman. "Our supplies are so small, I'm sorry, Santa."
Across the nation, Santas are taking their own precautions. The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, a trade group, featured a seminar on swine flu at a recent conference in Philadelphia. It urged members to take vitamins and use hand sanitizer.
The 200 or so Saint Nicks who volunteer to visit sick or grieving children through Santa America will be washing their suits daily instead of weekly. And they won't be wearing gloves so they can wash their hands more frequently.
At Tyrone Square Mall, officials didn't allow Santa to be interviewed or photographed. Same at International Plaza. But at both places and WestShore Plaza, hand sanitizer dispensers were in the Santa station lines.
Health officials say if Santas want the vaccine, they should check with their private physicians.
That's what McElhinney did.
"I told my doctor, 'Look, I am in a high-risk category,' and he said, 'You sure are,' " said McElhinney, 76, "And I went to the head of the list."
Beside the swine flu shot, the WestShore Santa has been taking Amantadine, used to prevent and treat the flu, and a daily regimen of multivitamins, plus extra vitamin C, D3, E, and B-complex, and Omega 3, as well as garlic, glucosa chondroitin and cinnamon for his blood sugar.
He hopes it's enough.
McElhinney hears the wishes of as many as 300 children a day. They pull beards and spill drinks. Some have tender stomachs.
"Babies. Babies are always erupting on me," he said.
For all this, Santa wonders why health officials won't put old Saint Nick at the top of the H1N1 vaccine priority list.
"We represent one of the most important things in a young kid's life," McElhinney said.
Health officials don't disagree. But for Santa to get his wish, he needs to grant theirs:
Stick giant batches of vaccine for everyone under the Christmas trees.
Times staff writer Luis Perez contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.