In an effort to limit the flu in the upcoming season, New York health officials are requiring thousands of medical staff and other personnel statewide to get vaccinated or else wear masks when in close contact with patients.
The New York Health Department rules apply to more than 4,000 hospitals, clinics, diagnostic centers, nursing homes, hospices and home care agencies statewide. Adopted in July, they will apply when officials determine influenza is prevalent. Last year, that meant Nov. 24 to April 20 when the flu was widespread, department monitoring showed.
Doctors, nurses, other employees, contractors, students and volunteers in close contact with patients must follow the rules.
"I've never missed a year. I already got mine," said Dr. Dennis McKenna, medical director at Albany Medical Center and since 1997 a physician in the emergency room where he's exposed to cases coming through the door. "I've never gotten the flu."
McKenna also cited good precautionary measures. They typically include hand-washing, keeping work areas clean and avoiding the droplets spread by infected patients coughing, sneezing and touching objects.
Health facilities are required to document their compliance and the vaccination status of all employees. The rules carry no immediate penalties or sanctions. They do not apply to hospital visitors like patients' families, though the department said hospitals and nursing homes are in the best position to determine appropriate restrictions during influenza season.
Albany Medical Center, with about 7,000 employees, provides the vaccine free to anyone who works or volunteers there, McKenna said. It had a 70 percent vaccination rate last year, higher than the statewide average. The hospital is not mandating shots, but those who opt out will have to wear masks, and the hospital has acquired a large supply, he said.
New York recorded 45,352 confirmed cases and 9,537 patients hospitalized with influenza last season, when the flu was considered widespread for 22 weeks and cited in 14 pediatric deaths, according to the Health Department.
The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to establish virus-resistant antibodies. The vaccine typically contains three common strains of flu virus. Last year's vaccine was about 62 percent effective at preventing infections, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said.
Rhode Island adopted a similar policy last year with a provision to fine both workers and facilities $100 for each violation, said Alexandra Stewart, health policy professor and researcher at George Washington University. The state did not collect any fines and saw a substantial increase in the number of workers who were vaccinated, she said.
Seventeen other states have regulations, mostly requiring hospitals provide flu shots free to staff and some requiring immunizations or else individual exemptions because of health concerns or religious beliefs, the Centers for Disease Control has noted. The CDC says the shots are safe, have not been shown to harm pregnant women or their babies, and do not raise the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare immune system disorder that can damage nerves. A study showed that the 1976 swine flu vaccine resulted in a small increased risk for the syndrome.
The agency collects reports on adverse vaccine reactions. Data from last season were not immediately available.
"We think the vaccine is safe," McKenna said. "To my knowledge we have not had any of the significant adverse reactions that have been reported."
Several unions representing health care workers opposed New York's regulation, some noting the limited effect of the vaccine and masks and calling the requirement coercive. While recommending its members get vaccinated for their protection, the New York State Nurses Association said "the prudent strategy" is to provide for paid sick time so sick personnel can stay home while they're infectious.