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NE Queens leaders take aim at flu shot shortage

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When news spread last fall of the nationwide flu vaccine shortage due to a contaminated shipment from a large supplier, Shepard went to her first source for the vaccine, her primary care doctor."My doctor said he had ordered a year in advance, but they did not send an adequate amount, so he told me to call 311," the city's information hotline, to find out where she could get a flu shot from a public facility, Shepard said. "I called 311," she said. "They referred me to Jamaica Hospital and Corona Health Center. I said I live in northeast Queens and there's no adequate transportation from here over there, but they said that's where you have to go."Shepard, a Bayside activist, never got her flu shot and was laid low by the virus in late January. "I was deathly sick," she said. "For 10 days I was in bed, and I couldn't lift my head off the pillow."Since her recovery, she has been campaigning with area leaders to improve public access in northeast Queens to the flu vaccine for the next flu season."There was a poor distribution policy," said Jerry Iannece, chairman of Community Board 11. "This was a problem for those of us in northeast Queens."Repeated calls to the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which coordinates the public availability of the flu vaccine in the city, were not returned by press time.During the flu vaccine scarcity, area hospitals including North Shore-LIJ Health System and New York Hospital Queens in Flushing, were directed to cut down on their usual community flu outreach and instead conserve the vaccine supply for those most at risk, such as the elderly or infants, according to hospital officials.Health care administrators at North Shore-LIJ, for instance, had ordered more than 40,000 doses for their hospitals' vaccination programs but received only half of that, a hospital spokesman said."Because of the shortage we had to significantly curtail outreach programs that we typically do throughout all of our service areas in Long Island and Queens," said Terry Lynam, a spokesman for North Shore-LIJ. "We typically hold dozens of flu vaccination programs each year, but once the extent of the shortage became known we had to cancel virtually all of them." Shepard said she found out from a friend that Flushing Hospital, because it is part of the Medisys network with Jamaica and Brookdale hospitals, was able to receive some of the flu vaccine, but questioned why this information was not made more public."I asked Flushing Hospital how they have the vaccine, and they told me that at the end of the day, Jamaica Hospital sends the overflow to us," she said. A spokesman for Jamaica and Flushing hospitals said Flushing Hospital's order of flu vaccine had been contaminated, but he confirmed that Jamaica Hospital did send some vaccine doses to northeast Queens."Because we're a network, we shared our supply so that Flushing, which initially didn't have any, was given some by sister hospitals," said spokesman Michael Hinck. He declined to comment on why the city's referral system did not include Flushing Hospital.Both Flushing Hospital and the North Shore-LIJ hospitals now have a good supply of the vaccine, but a recent test showed that the city's 311 hotline still refers all Queens residents to the Corona Health Center.Community leaders have started collecting information and research to ensure that residents will not have to leave northeast Queens to get a flu shot next winter.After speaking with health care policymakers at the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who told Shepard that they would like to see federal funding for the flu vaccine, she and Iannece recently met with U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) to discuss federal allocations to prevent a future shortage. Community Board 11 is working with Community Board 7 in Flushing on a survey of area doctors, hospitals, health centers, nursing homes and other health care facilities to determine how they handled the flu vaccine shortage.In addition, City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) recently met with city Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden to outline a strategy for better outreach to senior centers."We're going to try to reach out and build a very comprehensive list, so that we can reach out in a more comprehensive fashion," Avella said. "We are definitely going to increase the outreach so that there are more opportunities for seniors to get flu vaccines next season."Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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