Flu Epidemic Prompts New York to Suspend Vaccine Age Limits
By Delthia Ricks
Flu diagnoses and hospitalizations in New York have climbed to their highest levels on record prompting the governor to issue an executive order to contain what has been declared an epidemic.
Physicians across Long Island, inundated with patients, have escalated their war on the flu.
"I am about to see another person with the flu right now," Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director and assistant professor of infectious diseases at Stony Brook University School of Medicine said Thursday afternoon.
"We usually see a great predominance of influenza A around this time of year. But interestingly, we are currently seeing influenza A and influenza B. So A and B are almost running neck and neck," she said.
Patient numbers seem to have matched -- and may surpass -- the 2014-2015 flu season, experts say.
"This flu season hit earlier with more density, more prevalence, and more people getting sick. So that leads to more people showing up in the ER and being diagnosed with the flu," said Dr. Alan Bulbin, a specialist in infectious diseases at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill.
New statewide data released Thursday showed 7,779 new flu cases and 1,759 hospitalizations in a week, adding to the thousands already diagnosed and treated this season. There has been one pediatric death in New York, state health officials said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order Thursday to help fight the epidemic, possibly driven by a lower-than-optimal vaccination rate.
Cuomo is calling for an expanded public awareness campaign that urges people statewide to get vaccinated. His order also suspends state law on immunizations for minors, which had prevented pharmacists from vaccinating children ages 2 to 18.
Brad Hutton, deputy commissioner in the State Health Department's Office of Public Health, said evidence suggested people have shunned the vaccine this flu season. He didn't have figures, and added that state statisticians probably won't know precisely how many didn't get vaccinated until data are crunched months after this year's flu season ends in late April.
"Right now it's mostly anecdotal evidence -- what we're hearing from a lot of providers, who are saying that patients have not been getting vaccinated," Hutton said.
He added that people have cited the Australian flu season that was more dire than expected and marked by a vaccine with only 10 percent effectiveness. Quoting estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said the main A strain of flu causing infection in this country differs from the one that swept across Australia last year.
So far, the CDC has found the vaccine is between 30 percent and 60 percent effective. And even when vaccinated people catch the flu, the infection is milder and less worrisome, Hutton and other experts said Thursday.
No shortages of the vaccine or the antiviral drug, Tamiflu, are known to exist on Long Island, according to local infectious disease experts.
Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases for the Northwell Health system's campuses in Manhasset and New Hyde Park, said he and his team spent several days working to save the life of a 40-year-old woman who developed pneumonia as a consequence of the flu.
"She will survive but she had a horrible case with secondary bacterial pneumonia," Farber said.
He said the predominant strain circulating on Long Island is H3N2, the A-strain of flu that has fueled outbreaks and hospitalizations nationwide. He, like Donelan, also has seen stepped up influenza B activity. A strains of flu occur in animals and people. B flu strains affect only humans. A rising prevalence of B strains usually signals that the flu season has begun to mellow, though it's still too early to tell, Farber said.
"The people who have been most affected have been the classic cases that you see each flu season, that's the elderly, people with underlying chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and children with chronic conditions," Farber said.