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New York Yields to Nurses in Stopping Mandatory H1N1 Flu Shots

Scott Wallask, for HealthLeaders Media, October 27, 2009

For now, the war drums in New York state can stop beating.

In an about-face, New York Governor David Paterson announced last week the suspension of a new rule that healthcare workers in the state be required to obtain seasonal or H1N1 flu vaccinations as a condition of employment.

It's hard to win a battle against nurses. They collectively fuel the engine that runs healthcare, and they also possess a powerful voice. Some nurses get their flu shots, some don't. What was shown by New York's initial rule and subsequent U-turn is that nurses don't want the government making those decisions.

Paterson's announcement appears, at least for now, to scrap the debate's day in court. Only a few weeks back, a judge temporarily halted the mandatory vaccination program until a formal hearing could take place.

Paterson said the change of heart resulted from concerns about limited supplies of flu vaccinations in the state.

"Over the last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that New York would only receive approximately 23% of its anticipated vaccine supply by the end of the month," Paterson said in his statement. "As a result, we need to be as resourceful as we can with the limited supplies of vaccine currently coming into the state and make sure that those who are at the highest risk for complications from the H1N1 flu receive the first vaccine being distributed right now in New York state."

The statement said nothing about the legal battles created by nurses suing the state over the forced vaccinations. However, there is little doubt that opposition to the mandatory vaccinations put pressure on the state government to rethink its position.

The CDC indicates in its H1N1 vaccination priority list that "healthcare and emergency medical services personnel who have direct contact with patients or infectious material" are among subsets of the population who should be first in line for shots even when vaccine supplies are limited—which on the surface differs from the official stance of New York officials that supply concerns stopped the mandatory healthcare worker inoculations.

Pregnant women and children are also subsets established by the CDC, but the agency does not give special priority to one subset over the other. In other words, at least by the CDC's wording, healthcare workers with direct patient care duties, pregnant women, and children all lay equal claim to limited H1N1 vaccine.

Regardless, Paterson still encouraged healthcare workers to voluntarily obtain flu shots as an infection control measure, which is a softer approach that nurses in New York can accept.


Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at swallask@hcpro.com.

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