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Flu widespread in Nassau, Suffolk, state officials say

Nurse Practitioner Catherine Shannon, right, gives the flu

Nurse Practitioner Catherine Shannon, right, gives the flu vaccine to hospital employee Malgorzata Chelminska at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center on Oct. 14, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Coughing and sneezing are helping to spread the flu rapidly in New York, and the state's most recent map of affected counties shows widespread influenza activity in Nassau and Suffolk counties and in New York City.

Acting state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in response, Thursday officially declared influenza prevalent statewide -- an action that requires all unvaccinated health care workers to wear masks in areas where patients are treated.

Dr. Victor Politi, Nassau University Medical Center's chief executive, said many people don't appreciate flu's seriousness. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, for example, that influenza causes 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in any given flu season.

NUMC's virology department, which monitors flu activity for the state and the CDC, has found the most prevalent strain in circulation to be influenza A/H3N1. Last week, the CDC announced the current vaccine may not be as effective as expected because it doesn't strongly match one of the circulating A strains.

Still, Politi described flu vaccination as a vital public health measure because it helps reduce the prevalence of morbidity and mortality in the population at-large -- that is, the vaccine helps reduce sickness and death resulting from influenza and pneumonia.

The majority of doctors and nurses at the medical center in East Meadow have been vaccinated against the seasonal menace, he said.

"For whatever reason someone is not vaccinated -- personal preference or allergy -- they are required to wear a surgical face mask so that their respiratory droplets do not permeate the air," Politi said.

Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director for health care epidemiology at Stony Brook University Hospital, said of influenza's spread, "We're seeing an uptick, just like most areas."

In addition to flu, "there are lot of other viruses floating around this time of year," she said, referring to microbes that produce flu-mimicking symptoms and also are contagious. Those bugs, she said, include parainfluenza virus, human meta-pneumovirus and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

With the health commissioner's declaration, unvaccinated Stony Brook doctors and nurses will don masks identical to the ones worn by surgeons, Donelan said.

Dr. Mark Jarrett, chief quality officer for the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, said there's no question that influenza is in full swing on the Island. Even when the vaccine isn't an optimum match with the prevalent strain, he noted, being immunized can help lessen the flu's severity.

Jarrett said about 90 percent of the North Shore-LIU staff has been vaccinated, and those who have not received shots will wear masks.

"The rule is, we do not make our [unvaccinated] staff wear masks until flu is declared prevalent in the state. Obviously he has done that," Jarrett said of the commissioner's statement Thursday.

Dr. Harvey Miller, an allergy, immunology and asthma specialist in Islip, said it's vital that people with immuno-compromising conditions be immunized to avoid flu complications, such as pneumonia.

Vaccination is important for people with asthma, other respiratory conditions, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, he said.

Age is an additional risk factor. "As you get older your immunity declines, so it is important to be immunized against the flu," Miller said.

Donelan and Miller dismissed the claims of people who say they caught the flu from flu shots.

"The vaccine is deactivated," Donelan said, explaining that it can't trigger an infection. It takes two weeks after vaccination for the body to mount a sufficient supply of flu-fighting antibodies, she noted, and being exposed to the virus before full immunity occurs can result in infection.