Niagara Gazette — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has declared a public health emergency for New York state because of the severity of the flu season.
Cuomo made the announcement Saturday. His executive order allows pharmacists to administer flu vaccinations to patients between 6 months and 18 years of age.
The order also suspends for the next month the section of State Education Law limiting the authority of pharmacists to administer immunizing agents only to individuals 18 years of age or older.
The order comes as nearly 20,000 cases of influenza have been reported in the state so far this season. That's more than four times the 4,400 positive laboratory tests reported all of last season.
Locally, a health official has confirmed that a 32-year-old woman died at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, but that her lab tests are still out and haven't confirmed that it was in fact the flu.
Since 90 percent of flu deaths involve the elderly. The New York State Health Department only requires hospitals to report when a child or teenager dies of the flu.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah said, "To date in New York, we have had two pediatric deaths from the flu. New York averages about 1,400 deaths per year from the flu and based on the cases so far, we expect that to be worse."
Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center is now limiting the number of patient visitors.
During the current flu outbreak, only one visitor is permitted to visit patients — and no one under the age of 14 can visit a nursing unit. Only father’s and grandparents have access to the maternity unit.
Nationally, U.S. hospitals are increasingly cracking down on employees who won't get flu shots, with some workers losing their jobs over their refusal.
"Where does it say that I am no longer a patient if I'm a nurse," wondered Carrie Calhoun, a longtime critical care nurse in suburban Chicago who was fired last month after she refused a flu shot.
Hospitals' get-tougher measures coincide with an earlier-than-usual flu season hitting harder than in recent mild seasons. Flu is widespread in most states, and at least 20 children have died.
Most doctors and nurses do get flu shots. But in the past two months, at least 15 nurses and other hospital staffers in four states have been fired for refusing, and several others have resigned, according to affected workers, hospital authorities and published reports.
In Rhode Island, one of three states with tough penalties behind a mandatory vaccine policy for health care workers, more than 1,000 workers recently signed a petition opposing the policy, according to a labor union that has filed suit to end the regulation.
Why would people whose job is to protect sick patients refuse a flu shot? The reasons vary: allergies to flu vaccine, which are rare; religious objections; and skepticism about whether vaccinating health workers will prevent flu in patients.
Dr. Carolyn Bridges, associate director for adult immunization at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the strongest evidence is from studies in nursing homes, linking flu vaccination among health care workers with fewer patient deaths from all causes.
"We would all like to see stronger data," she said. But other evidence shows flu vaccination "significantly decreases" flu cases, she said. "It should work the same in a health care worker versus somebody out in the community."
Cancer nurse Joyce Gingerich is among the skeptics and says her decision to avoid the shot is mostly "a personal thing." She's among seven employees at IU Health Goshen Hospital in northern Indiana who were recently fired for refusing flu shots. Gingerich said she gets other vaccinations but thinks it should be a choice. She opposes "the injustice of being forced to put something in my body."
Medical ethicist Art Caplan says health care workers' ethical obligation to protect patients trumps their individual rights.
"If you don't want to do it, you shouldn't work in that environment," said Caplan, medical ethics chief at New York University's Langone Medical Center. "Patients should demand that their health care provider gets flu shots — and they should ask them."
For some people, flu causes only mild symptoms. But it can also lead to pneumonia, and there are thousands of hospitalizations and deaths each year. The number of deaths has varied in recent decades from about 3,000 to 49,000.
A survey by CDC researchers found that in 2011, more than 400 U.S. hospitals required flu vaccinations for their employees and 29 hospitals fired unvaccinated employees.Mug of Cuomo, Andrew Andrew Cuomo Declares flu emergency Channel 4 News and The Associated Press contributed to this report