On February 11, 2016, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker declared influenza prevalent in New York State. With this declaration, health care workers who are not vaccinated against influenza must now wear surgical or procedure masks in areas where patients are typically present.
"Health care workers play a vital role in containing the spread of the flu," Dr. Zucker said. "Although flu shots are a safe and effective way to reduce the risk for flu, not all health care workers choose to get vaccinated. By requiring those who are unvaccinated to wear masks when they're around patients, we're doing what we can to protect the most vulnerable, which includes the sick and the elderly."
Flu activity in the State is now considered to be widespread, with laboratory confirmed cases in 44 counties and all boroughs of New York City. So far this season in New York, 817 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported, and no reports of pediatric deaths from flu. Over the last three seasons, there have been 26 pediatric flu deaths in New York and an average of 9,966 flu-related hospitalizations each season.
Flu season occurs primarily from October through May, often peaking in February. It is not too late to get vaccinated and there are ample amounts of the vaccine available. This year's strain covers the most common circulating strains for the flu.
The Regulation for Prevention of Influenza Transmission first went into effect during the 2013-14 influenza season. The regulation requires health care workers in certain facilities and agencies regulated by the New York State Department of Health (DOH) to wear surgical or procedure masks while influenza is prevalent if they have not had a flu vaccine. The regulation was amended in 2014 in response to feedback from affected health care entities. The amendments clarify definitions, bring documentation requirements in line with those for other vaccines and simplify data collection. They also allow for the removal of masks when health care workers are accompanying patients in the community, providing speech therapy services or communicating with persons who lip read.
Preventing health care personnel from transmitting influenza to patients is a serious patient safety issue. In addition, health care personnel are at increased risk of acquiring influenza because of their contact with sick patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends that health care workers be vaccinated for influenza.
In New York State, 86 percent of health care personnel, in surveyed facilities were vaccinated during the 2014-2015 flu season, a one percent increase from the previous year. Information on state vaccination rates by health care facility can be found here.
DOH recommends that everyone six months of age or older receive a flu vaccination. Since the flu virus can spread through coughing or sneezing, it is also important that family members and people who regularly come into contact with children and other individuals at higher risk, get a flu shot.
Most health insurance plans cover flu vaccines. Individuals and families without health insurance should check with their county health department to find out if local clinics will be held to provide free or low cost vaccinations. Those 18 years of age and older may also be able to get their flu vaccine at a local pharmacy.
For additional information about influenza, including how it is monitored in New York State, visit the Department of Health web page.