NEW YORK — Some of New York's biggest companies, including Wall Street giants Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, received doses of swine flu vaccine for at-risk employees, drawing criticism that the hard-to-find vaccine is going first to the privileged, Reuters and The Associated Press reported
New York City health officials scrambled to explain themselves and U.S. officials weighed in as well.
Members of Congress fired off letters demanding immediate explanations and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminded state and city health officers of the need to make sure the most vulnerable people get shots first.
The New York City Health Department was besieged with complaints.
Health officials said there was no evidence that the vaccine had been given out to ineligible employees, the Washington Post reported.
About 150,000 "providers" — everything from hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices to pharmacies and the medical departments of schools and corporations — are qualified to get shipments of the H1N1 vaccine. The federal government owns the entire supply but is distributing it as directed by 63 state, city and territorial health departments.
CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden sent out a reminder to state and city health departments that distribute vaccine.
"I ask each of you to review your plans immediately and work to ensure that the maximum number of doses is delivered to those at greatest risk as rapidly as possible," he wrote.
"I especially appreciate the many innovative ways you've found to reach them, including school-located vaccine clinics, special clinics for pregnant women, outreach to children with special needs, and making vaccine available to community- and faith-based organizations serving these high-risk populations."
"Any vaccine distribution decisions that appear to direct vaccine to people outside the identified priority groups have the potential to undermine the credibility of the program," Frieden said in the e-mail message.
Anne Schuchat, another CDC official, said she believes the rumors may have arisen in part because a few private companies are starting to get vaccine, even though many public agencies still don't have enough.
"It is important to separate the venue where the vaccine is being offered from who is getting it," she said. "Even when vaccine is shipped to an employer-based clinic, we expect it is being given to the target population."
She added that workplace medical departments are, in fact, good ways to reach pregnant women and adults with chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes -- two of the five groups now being targeted. Independent observers agreed.
A shortage of H1N1 vaccines has frayed nerves, and public health departments across the country say they will not be able to meet the bulk of the demand until December or January.
The federal government, which is buying the vaccines and distributing them for free to 62 state and city health departments, says 35.6 million doses have been made and packaged since production began.
"Whether it's an anthrax attack or a pandemic, the question is: How do you get to people?" said Paul Jarris of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
"If an employer was able to step forward and identify they had a number of high-risk people, it would be legitimate to consider that employer as one dispensing center for the vaccine," he said. "Just because it's Goldman Sachs doesn't mean it's wrong."
Vaccine providers must assert in writing that they will follow the CDC's guidelines. However, there is no formal monitoring or enforcement by the federal government of the pledge.
"When H1N1 vaccine first became available in the fall, we directed all available doses to pediatricians, OB-GYNs, community health centers, public and private hospitals," New York City health department spokeswoman Jessica Scaperotti said in a telephone interview.
"As more vaccine became available we started to place small orders to providers that serve adults, including employee health centers."
She said the city had given 800,000 doses to about 1,100 providers, with Lenox Hill Hospital, for example, getting 1,200 doses and banking firm Goldman Sachs getting 200 of the 5,300 doses it asked for, Scaperotti said.
She said 16 of the city's 25 biggest employers had vaccine, including Columbia University, Citi Group and others, as well as the Federal Reserve Bank, which is not among the top 25 employers.
Morgan Stanley said it received 500 doses of the vaccine for its New York City locations and 500 doses for its Westchester location in suburban New York.
"We never thought we would receive doses ahead of area hospitals and once this was brought to our attention, we promptly donated the doses we received to a few area hospitals," including Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital in New York, a company spokeswoman said.