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With flu prevalent, new regulation aims to protect patients, health care workers

ALBANY – Influenza has become prevalent in New York State, State Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., declared on Thursday. Under a new regulation, this requires regulated facilities and agencies to activate their policies and procedures to ensure that their personnel wear a surgical or procedure mask in areas where patients may be present if they have not received a flu vaccine and engage in activities in which they could expose patients to the flu if infected.

The measure is intended to protect patients from getting the flu from their healthcare workers. Influenza can be severe and cause death in persons with underlying medical conditions. Healthcare workers can pose a risk to patients by transmitting influenza infection. The regulation has the added benefit of protecting healthcare workers who are unvaccinated from acquiring the flu from patients and others.

"Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against influenza, and it is important for individuals who come in contact with patients to be vaccinated to help prevent the spread of flu," said Commissioner Shah. "For those who have not been vaccinated, this regulation is intended to provide patients and caregivers an added layer of protection."

The New York State Department of Health (DOH) regulatory requirement (Section 2.59 of the New York State Sanitary Code) that health care workers wear masks applies to health care settings regulated by DOH. The settings include general hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, certified home health agencies, long term home health care programs, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) home care programs, licensed home care service agencies, limited licensed home care service agencies, and hospices.

The mask requirement remains in effect until the Commissioner declares influenza no longer prevalent in New York State.

Although masks are not as effective in preventing influenza transmission as vaccination, evidence indicates that masks decrease transmission from people experiencing respiratory symptoms. In addition, because persons incubating influenza may shed influenza virus before they have noticeable symptoms, wearing a mask is expected to lessen the transmission without imposing a burden on health care personnel.

Flu activity in the State is now considered to be widespread, with laboratory confirmed cases in more than 45 counties and all boroughs of New York City so far.

"The early reports of flu cases in New York further emphasize the importance of people getting a flu vaccination now" Shah said. "A flu vaccination is a safe and effective way to reduce your risk for flu and also protect the health of your family and friends."

Symptoms of influenza can include the sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches, as well as a cough or sore throat. These symptoms are often similar to cold symptoms, but come on more swiftly and are more pronounced. Although most people will usually recover from flu without complications, the virus poses a more serious risk for individuals younger than age two, those over 50, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems or chronic medical conditions.

Commissioner Shah reminds New Yorkers who have not been vaccinated for influenza that it's NOT too late to get their annual vaccination. Since flu sometimes peaks in late winter or early spring, vaccinations at this time of year offer important protection. Health care providers and local health departments continue to have ample supplies of flu vaccine.

For more flu-related information, please visit the DOH website at www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/influenza/seasonal/.

Frequently Asked Questions regarding the regulation and other resources are available at www.health.ny.gov/FluMaskReg.