New York state health officials have suspended a ruling that would have forced health care workers across the state to get vaccinated against the swine flu by the end of November or risk losing their jobs, saying in a decision issued Thursday that they did so because the vaccine is in short supply.
New York will be getting only about 23 percent of its anticipated supply of the vaccine for the swine flu virus — also called H1N1 — by the end of the month, and that should be reserved for those most at risk for serious illness and death, according to Gov. David Paterson's office.
"New evidence is showing that H1N1 can be especially virulent to pregnant women and young people — so they should get vaccinated first," said Dr. Richard Daines, the state health commissioner.
Workers had protested Daines' earlier order that health care workers receive the vaccine, arguing it was unfair to force them to put a substance into their body. Unions and health workers sued the state, and a judge issued a temporary restraining order last week.
"This is welcome news," said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union. "This suit was never about the safety of the vaccine, or the merits of it. The suit was always about giving individuals the choice, as adults, as to whether or not they wanted to be vaccinated without the threat of termination."
It's unclear what will happen with the lawsuits. Thursday's action was a suspension of the order, and the Health Department plans to pursue making the order permanent in 2010, as long as there's enough vaccine for that flu season, said Diane Mathis, an agency spokeswoman.
The Health Department initially had said the workers must be vaccinated by November 30. Institutions had to determine how to enforce the mandate, leaving some workers concerned about possible disciplinary action, including dismissal.
"This was the proper and appropriate action for the state to take," said Kenneth Brynien, president of the Public Employees Federation, one of the unions that sued. "This was an extremely passionate issue for many of our members."
PEF said it encourages members to get flu vaccinations, but opposes the emergency regulation requiring the vaccine as a condition of employment.
This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed the state to order 146,300 doses of vaccine, but health care providers across the state have requested more than 1.4 million doses.