NEW YORK (AP) - The severity of this year's flu season prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to declare a public health emergency for New York State on Saturday, clearing the way for vaccinations to reach children more easily.
Cuomo's emergency declaration comes as the state Health Department reports that the number of patients admitted to hospitals statewide continues to rise with a 55 percent increase in the last week.
Two children have died in New York State so far and at least 10 New York City adults have died from flu-related illness. Statewide adult deaths aren't tracked.
The executive order permits pharmacists to administer flu vaccinations to patients between 6 months and 18 years of age, suspending a section of State Education Law that would normally limit the authority of pharmacists to administer immunizing agents to individuals 18 years of age or older.
Cuomo said he has directed his administration, the New York State Health Department and others to use all resources necessary to deal with the problem and to "remove all barriers to ensure that all New Yorkers - children and adults alike - have access to critically needed flu vaccines."
Flu is widespread in most states this year, and at least 20 children have died.
In declaring the health emergency, the governor cited the worst season for influenza in at least four years with all 57 counties statewide and all five boroughs of New York City counting among the 19,128 cases reported so far. That's more than four times the 4,404 positive laboratory tests reported during last year's flu season.
A promotional campaign to encourage anyone who has not gotten a flu shot to get one would be carried out, along with the message that it is not too late to get a shot, the governor said in a release.
Health professionals say the vaccine will prevent about 62 percent of the people who get it from getting the flu while the rest will have a milder case of it. A vaccine takes two weeks to fully kick in.
People can decrease their odds of getting the flu by washing their hands frequently and avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth. Because viruses can be spread by the hands as well as the air, health professionals recommend coughing into an elbow rather than the hand and staying home to treat the flu rather than going to work and spreading the illness.
Flu season generally peaks in January and February and can linger through March. This year's severe flu season follows the mildest ever recorded last year.
On Saturday, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio joined health professionals and parents at a news conference calling for immediate passage of paid sick leave legislation stalled in the City Council.
He said more than a million New Yorkers lack even a single paid sick day, forcing them between going to work sick and spread the flu or staying home and losing a day's pay.