Some of New York City's largest employers -- including Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and big universities -- have started receiving doses of the much-in-demand swine flu vaccine for their at-risk employees.
The government-funded vaccine is being distributed to states, where health departments decide where to send the limited doses. In New York, health officials are allowing businesses with onsite medical staff to apply for the vaccine.
Doctors for large companies can ask for the vaccine along with other doctors but must agree to vaccinate only high-risk employees like pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses, said Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Last month, the city began offering vaccine to schoolchildren, as well as pediatricians and obstetricians who asked for it. Scaperotti said only half of the pediatricians in New York City have requested vaccine
"As the vaccine became more available we expanded it to adult providers,'' Scaperotti said. She called the large employers "a great avenue for vaccinating people at risk.''
But a critic said Wall Street firms shouldn't have access to the vaccine before less wealthy Americans.
"Wall Street banks have already taken so much from us. They've taken trillions of our tax dollars. They've taken away people's homes who are struggling to pay the bills,'' union official John VanDeventer wrote on the Service Employees International Union Web site. "But they should not be allowed to take away our health and well-being.''
The union has about 2 million members, including health care workers.
The swine flu vaccine has been in short supply nationwide because of manufacturing delays, resulting in long lines at clinics and patients being turned away at doctor's offices. The vaccine started trickling out in early October, and there are now nearly 32 million doses available.
The government, which ordered 250 million doses, has recommended that the limited supply go first to high-risk groups: children and young people through age 24, people caring for infants under 6 months, pregnant women and health care workers.
Swine flu -- which scientists call the 2009 H1N1 strain -- is widespread throughout the country now, much earlier than seasonal flu usually hits.
Nationwide, about 90,000 sites are expected to receive vaccine -- mainly hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices, county health departments and pharmacies.
Other big New York City employers that have received doses of the vaccine include Columbia University, Time Inc., the Federal Reserve Bank and several hospitals. The distribution was first reported by Business Week.
Goldman Sachs has received 200 doses and Citigroup has received 1,200, health officials said. So far, 800,000 doses have been delivered to 1,400 health-care providers in New York City, including public schools, pediatricians and hospitals.
Citigroup, "like many other large New York City employers, has partnered with the Department of Health to act as a distribution site for the H1N1 vaccine through the company's health clinics,'' the company said in a statement Thursday. "The vaccine is being provided only to employees in high-risk categories as defined by the CDC.''
Goldman Sachs spokesman Ed Canaday said Thursday that the city's health department "decides in its sole discretion who receives the H1N1 vaccine -- both the amount and timing.''
"Goldman Sachs, like other responsible employers, has requested vaccine and will supply it only to employees who qualify,'' Canaday said.
While vaccinating children is a top priority for health officials, Scaperotti said only half of the pediatricians in New York City have asked for it.
Some pediatricians' offices that have received the vaccine, though, said the supply is not meeting the demand.
Manager Linda O'Hanlon at Uptown Pediatrics in Manhattan, said the office has received 500 doses so far -- not enough for a practice with almost 7,000 patients.
"We have about 800 appointments'' set up for patients who want to get vaccinated, she said.