By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Get ready to see more doctors and nurses wearing masks. New rules adopted by the New York Health Department requires all health care workers -- even volunteers -- at hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare agencies to either get their flu shots or wear face masks when working with patients.
After last year’s heavy flu season, state Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah said that health care personnel come into contact with many patients who have chronic conditions, making them more susceptible to flu infections. “This regulation will enable health care workers to meet their obligation to do no harm to patients," and will protect workers as well, he said.
Health care worker vaccination rates are typically below recommended levels, at only 48.4 percent, according to DOH. Masks are not as effective as flu shots, but are better than nothing.
New York State and the nation experienced the worst seasonal influenza season in a decade in 2012-2013, with flu activity strongest from November through April. However, seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October, and usually peaks in January or February.
The requirement that health care workers wear masks will be in effect “during the time when influenza is categorized as prevalent in New York State,” said DOH.
Many health care workers support the new requirement. 1199 SEIU President George Gresham said during last year’s flu season, "We are steadfast in our commitment to protecting the health of our patients and the communities where we work. We strongly support this measure as a sensible precaution to prevent influenza transmission."
The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to establish antibodies. It typically contains three common strains of flu virus, but this year about a fifth of the doses will be supercharged with a fourth strain. These four-strain vaccines are called “quadrivalent.” (All nasal spray vaccines are expected to be quadrivalent.)
Quadrivalent influenza vaccines provide expanded coverage against influenza virus compared to traditional trivalent vaccines. They protect against two influenza A virus strains and two influenza B virus strains. Trivalent vaccines provide coverage against two influenza virus strains and only one influenza B virus strain.
While influenza B accounts for only one quarter of influenza activity each season, it hits kids harder than influenza A. Scientists never know exactly what virus strains will predominate every year, so the quadrivalent vaccines could be especially beneficial to youngsters.
All people six months and older should get an influenza vaccination before the start of each flu season.