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Flu vaccines running low, hospitals fill up as Hudson Valley fights virus

Registered nurse Charlene Luxcin administers a flu shot

Registered nurse Charlene Luxcin administers a flu shot to a patient at the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston. Boston declared a public health emergency as the city tried to deal with a harsh flu season, and the state reported 18 flu-related deaths. (Jan. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

As hospitals fill up and flu vaccines became increasingly scarce, Hudson Valley experts predicted an outbreak far worse than last year.

"Traditionally, this is only the beginning of the flu season [which peaks in February]," said David Markenson, Westchester Medical Center's medical director of regional emergency service. "If we have a normal progression, we could be two, three, four times normal by the middle of the season (next month)."

At Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, officials are preparing to open a "fast-flu clinic" on Monday by using the building's auditorium as a place to specifically treat those ailed by the flu, said Deborah Marshall, the vice president of Bon Secours Charity Health System, which oversees Good Samaritan.

The decision to use the auditorium comes after a "significant upsurge" in emergency room visits in recent weeks from patients complaining of flu-like symptoms, as nearly 100 percent of the hospital's beds are filled right now, Marshall said.

The hospital is also placing restrictions on visitation, while employees and visitors alike are being instructed to use hand sanitizer both before and after leaving patients' rooms, Marshall added.

In Dutchess County, ambulances transporting patients to Poughkeepsie's Vassar Brothers Medical Center and Saint Francis Hospital and Health Cetners were briefly diverted to other facilities last week as the hospitals had virtually no beds available due to a surge in flu-stricken patients, Michael Caldwell, the county's health commissioner, said Thursday.

Westchester Medical Center's Markenson has noticed a 25 percent to 30 percent uptick in flu patients this season, though he said the proportion of serious cases -- such as those requiring admission to the ICU -- has stayed stable compared with past years. He added that the hospital, which acts as a trauma center for other facilities in the region, is still admitting severely ill patients from other hospitals in the area.

But even those trying to avoid illness by getting vaccinated are facing obstacles.

Nearly a half-dozen pharmacies across Westchester were reporting vaccine shortages Friday, as increased media attention, coupled with the spreading virus, have prompted people to seek out shots, News12 reported.

Westchester's health department said Friday that, although some pharmacies may periodically run out of vaccine, an assessment performed by the county Thursday found that adult supplies remain available, and residents who want to know where to go for a shot can visit the county's website for the names of pharmacies.

Officials in other Hudson Valley officials also agreed that vaccine levels, while at times strained, remain adequate.

"It may take going to more than one place, but it's still available," said Ulster County Health Commissioner Carol Smith.

Despite the current flu crunch, Kristin Lawton, Northern Westchester Hospital's director of emergency services, believes there may be an upside to the current focus on pre-empting the nasty malady.

"If anything comes out of this flu season, it will show people the importance of getting vaccinated," she said.

With Bloomberg News

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