Some of New York City's largest employers — including Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and big universities — have started receiving doses of the much-in-demand swine flu vaccine for their at-risk employees.
The government-funded vaccine is being distributed to states, where health departments decide where to send the limited doses. In New York, health officials are allowing businesses with onsite medical staff to apply for the vaccine.
Doctors for large companies can ask for the vaccine along with other doctors but must agree to vaccinate only high-risk employees like pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses, said Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Last month, the city began offering vaccine to schoolchildren, as well as pediatricians and obstetricians who asked for it. Scaperotti said only half of the pediatricians in New York City have requested vaccine
"As the vaccine became more available we expanded it to adult providers," Scaperotti said. She called the large employers "a great avenue for vaccinating people at risk."
But a critic said Wall Street firms shouldn't have access to the vaccine before less wealthy Americans.
"Wall Street banks have already taken so much from us. They've taken trillions of our tax dollars. They've taken away people's homes who are struggling to pay the bills," union official John VanDeventer wrote on the Service Employees International Union Web site. "But they should not be allowed to take away our health and well-being."
The union has about 2 million members, including health care workers.
Vaccine in short supply
The swine flu vaccine has been in short supply nationwide because of manufacturing delays, resulting in long lines at clinics and patients being turned away at doctor's offices. The vaccine started trickling out in early October, and there are now nearly 36 million doses available.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not review and sign off on the decisions of state and city health departments as to which doctor's offices and businesses will be sent vaccine doses, said spokesman Tom Skinner.
The CDC director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, however, did send a letter Thursday to state and local health departments asking them to review their distribution plans and make sure the vaccine is getting to high-risk groups. Frieden said any decisions that appear to direct vaccine outside priority groups "have the potential to undermine the credibility of the program."
The agency has set guidelines on which patients should be at the front of the line: children and young people through age 24, people caring for infants under 6 months, pregnant women, health care workers and adults with health conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
Swine flu — which scientists call the 2009 H1N1 strain — is widespread throughout the country now, much earlier than seasonal flu usually hits.
Other big New York City employers that have received doses of the vaccine include Columbia University, Time Inc., the Federal Reserve Bank and several hospitals. The distribution was first reported by Business Week.
Goldman Sachs has received 200 doses and Citigroup has received 1,200, health officials said. So far, 800,000 doses have been delivered to 1,400 health care providers in New York City, including public schools, pediatricians and hospitals.
In statements, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs said the vaccine would only go to those in high-risk groups.
"Goldman Sachs, like other responsible employers, has requested vaccine and will supply it only to employees who qualify," said spokesman Ed Canaday.
Morgan Stanley received 1,000 doses of the vaccine for its New York and suburban offices, but turned over its entire supply to local hospitals when it learned it received shipments before some area hospitals, spokeswoman Jeanmarie McFadden said.
Some New York pediatricians' offices that have gotten vaccine say the supply is not meeting the demand.
Manager Linda O'Hanlon at Uptown Pediatrics in Manhattan, said her office has received 500 doses so far — not enough for a practice with almost 7,000 patients.
"We have about 800 appointments" set up for patients who want to get vaccinated, she said.