People throughout the Hudson Valley lined up for flu shots Saturday, many of them for the first time, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a public health emergency and doctors warned of the most severe flu season in years.
Howie Rosenberg, 56, of Suffern, received his first-ever flu shot Saturday when his wife, 55-year-old Sherry Rosenberg, brought him to a pharmacy in Ramapo.
"They tell you if it's going to snow, you go out and buy shovels," Howie Rosenberg said. "This is the same thing."
The couple made appointments online with a local Walgreens, but the website asked customers to call the store and make sure they had the vaccine. When they called, they said the pharmacy told them they couldn't get vaccines until Monday.
"We didn't want to wait," Sherry Rosenberg said. "So we looked up pharmacies and thank God this one had them. Most places are really busy and don't have any."
More than 19,000 cases of influenza have been reported statewide this season -- nearly five times the amount reported all of last season, the governor's office said Saturday. In addition, as of Jan. 5, the state Department of Health has received reports of nearly 2,900 patients hospitalized with the flu this season -- more than double in all of last winter.
The dire warnings and alarming early statistics prompted Cuomo to issue an executive order allowing health care professionals to administer vaccines to children and teenagers younger than 18.
"We are experiencing the worst flu season since at least 2009, and influenza activity in New York State is widespread, with cases reported in all 57 counties and all five boroughs of New York City," Cuomo said.
The executive order will allow pharmacists to administer the flu vaccine for the next 30 days to patients ages 6 months to 18. State education law prohibits pharmacists from giving the vaccine to patients younger than 18.
Two New York State children and 18 youngsters nationwide have died from influenza, Cuomo's office said.
The flu season, which lasts through May, normally peaks in February.
The Prescription Center on Route 59 in Tallman has vaccinated more than 1,000 people against the flu this winter, owner Michael Rosenblaum said.
"About three or four years ago, it was an availability problem. There just wasn't enough. Now, it's the busiest it's ever been. People are coming in very late in the season because of what's going on. They usually come in October through December. We never see anyone come in January, but we've been crazy the last week with people coming in," he said Saturday.
He ordered 100 vials of the vaccine -- good for about 1,000 shots -- in the beginning of the season and requested an additional 25 vials two weeks ago.
"We come close to selling out most years, but this year will definitely sell out, even with the extra we have," he said.
Gary Goldberg, 72, of Montebello, rolled up the right sleeve of his white button-down shirt to get the shot Saturday afternoon, administered by Rosenblaum.
"I wanted to live to see 73," Goldberg chuckled. "I had a shot a few years ago, but after watching the news and reading Newsday, I knew I had to get one. I have a daughter who's a doctor who's against vaccinations, but even she told me to go get one. My wife got one and she doesn't believe in it, either."
Goldberg, who runs Gary Goldberg Financial Services, said four out of his 40 employees already have come down with a nasty case of the flu.
"I'm telling them to go home," Goldberg said. "I've been encouraging them, if they feel anything, any symptoms at all, they should go home. No sense in getting everyone else sick, and they should rest."
Throughout the Hudson Valley, health officials were predicting an upswing in those getting the vaccine, with some hospitals filled to capacity.
Deborah Marshall, vice president for the health system at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, described the hospital as "packed." One of the challenges, she said, is that hospital staff members also have been stricken with the virus.
"We were supposed to open our flu center on Monday, but we had to push it back to Jan. 20 because we need to get our staffing in order," she said.
The hospital is planning to clear out its 200-seat auditorium, bring in stretchers and transform it into a flu triage unit. Dozens of doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants will be manning the fast-track center that will be able to see up to 100 people at a time.
"This is all prepared as part of our emergency preparedness plan, but this is the first time we've had to do something like this for the flu," said Marshall, who came down with the flu during the holidays.
All visitors and staff are encouraged to wear masks, she said, and everyone who is sick is automatically given one.
"Anyone exhibiting any signs or symptoms isn't allowed to visit patients. ...We check out volunteers daily to make sure they're still in good health in order to not compromise patients."
Westchester Medical Center's David Markenson reported a 25-30 percent uptick in flu patients this season, though Markenson, Westchester Medical Center's medical director of regional emergency service, said the proportion of serious cases -- such as those requiring admission to the ICU -- has been stable compared with past years.
The hospital, which acts as a trauma center for other facilities in the region, is still admitting severely ill patients from other area hospitals as usual, he said Friday.