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Banks' H1N1 Flu Vaccines Stir Outrage


Wall Street bankers once again are the target of populist outrage, this time over the news that Goldman Sachs (GS), Citigroup (C), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and others are receiving limited doses of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine. Following a Nov. 2 story on BusinessWeek.com, and its subsequent pickup on NBC's Today Show and other media outlets, politicians, lobbyists, and bloggers launched blistering attacks against New York City health officials, the White House, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and, of course, the "fat cat bankers" themselves. "It's obscene that Wall Street bankers think they are entitled to private shipments of H1N1 vaccinations while health-care workers, pregnant women, and other at-risk Americans are either waiting in line for hours or getting turned away because of shortages," said Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, in a press release. The SEIU—the largest union of health-care workers in the country, with more than 2 million members—is calling for banks and corporations to donate their vaccine doses to local hospitals. NYC Officials: Distributions Are NormalThere is as yet no evidence to suggest that Goldman Sachs, Citi, JPMorgan, or any other firm that received doses of the vaccine will use it to vaccinate anyone other than people who qualify as high-risk: pregnant women, children and young people age 6 months to 24 years, people who live with or provide care for infants under 6 months (who cannot be vaccinated), people age 24 to 64 with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for flu-related complications, and health-care workers and emergency medical personnel. In fact, employers and others have to sign a waiver saying so before they can receive the doses. City officials, who are responsible for placing orders of the vaccine with the CDC, have stressed that distributions to workplaces are in line with normal procedures, part of a deliberate attempt to mitigate illness in as widespread a manner as possible. The banking outfits tried to raise that point on Thursday, Nov. 5. "It is important to understand that the [New York City] Department of Health decides in its sole discretion who receives H1N1 vaccines—both the amount and timing," said Goldman in an e-mail statement. "Goldman Sachs, like other responsible employers, has requested vaccine and will supply it only to employees who qualify based on the requirements laid down by the CDC and Department of Health." In an e-mailed statement, Citi said: "Citi, like many other large New York City employers, has for many years partnered with the New York City Department of Health to act as a distribution site for flu vaccines through the company's existing health clinics. As such, Citi is participating in the DOH's distribution system for delivering the H1N1 vaccine throughout New York City. The H1N1 vaccine is being provided through our clinics only to employees in high-risk categories as defined by the CDC." H1N1 Flu Vaccine Shortages Across the U.S.Normal vaccine distribution dynamics, however, are being distorted in this case by two factors: the PR drubbing that Goldman, Citi, and other banks have taken over their lucrative executive pay and federal bailouts, and the fact that flu vaccine shortages persist across the country. As of Nov. 4, the CDC's daily allocation update reported 32.3 million doses of vaccine were available. The Los Angeles Times reported on Nov. 5, for example, that California's goal to vaccinate all high-risk patients by Dec. 31 may be threatened by the shortages. At least 25 health agencies throughout the state have received less than half the ordered vaccines, the report said. Critics say it's unfair that certain corporations are receiving limited doses of the vaccine while schools, hospitals, and doctors' offices are still forced to ration what little they have. Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington, a D.C.-based watchdog, is asking Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to investigate why the CDC approved the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine to Wall Street firms. "In what world do Wall Street employees deserve to be vaccinated ahead of high-risk children, pregnant women, and health-care workers?" said executive director Melanie Sloan in a statement on Nov. 5. "Unfortunately, for the thousands being turned away in clinics across America, the CDC has decided to prioritize the millionaires over the masses." Representative Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) also criticized the Obama Administration's distribution approach."While many Missourians are still at risk, Wall Street bankers are at the head of the line for H1N1 vaccine," said Blunt, who's hoping to grab a Missouri Senate seat in next year's midterm elections.Reuters reported that Representative Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) also expressed concern upon hearing the news. CDC Will Reemphasize Priority ListIn a press conference Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the story has "led our director of the CDC to call state and local officials and remind them that there's a priority list for who should receive H1N1 vaccine, and will be sending a letter to states and localities again to remind them of what that is." Wall Street firms are not the only city institutions receiving the vaccines. Large employers that have received or are scheduled to receive vaccine so far include Time Warner (TWX), Memorial Sloan-Kettering, New York Presbyterian Healthcare System, and New York University, according to Jessica Scaperotti, press secretary for the New York City Health & Mental Hygiene Dept. In order to register to receive the vaccine, says Claire Pospisil, spokesperson for the New York State Health Dept., "you have to indicate how many high-priority individuals you plan to serve." Allocation amounts are then determined in proportion to population, and are intended to ensure access for populations most in need. Citi indicated its intent to do just that in a memo sent to employees last week. "Persons who are not included in one of the priority groups above are being asked to defer vaccination at this time," said the memo. "Vaccine production capabilities are rapidly expanding, and when state and local health officials determine there is a sufficient quantity, this recommendation may change." Providers are also required to sign a federal waiver agreeing that they'll administer it to only high-risk populations. "The immunization provider agrees to…administer the 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) monovalent vaccine according to the recommendations of CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices as adopted by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention," in addition to other requirements, reads the Vaccine Provider Agreement. All providers must sign such an agreement in order to receive the vaccine, says Pospisil.
Deprez is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York. Follow her on Twitter @esmedeprez.

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