* Union says decision endangers health
* Banks pledge to vaccinate only high-risk employees
* Health officials say they distributing vaccine widely
By Bill Berkrot
NEW YORK, Nov 5 (Reuters) - New York City health officials scrambled to explain themselves on Thursday following outraged media reports about bankers who got scarce H1N1 flu vaccines through their employers.
Although there is a longstanding arrangement for employers to provide seasonal flu shots to workers, the city health department was bombarded with calls and television reports about Wall Street workers jumping the line ahead of pregnant women and children.
“It’s bad enough that Wall Street crashed our economy and is back to paying out platinum bonuses after taking trillions in taxpayer-funded bailouts and backstops,” Service Employees International Union Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger said in a statement.
“But purposely endangering the health of millions of Americans during a public health crisis crosses all lines of decency.”
The shortage of H1N1 vaccines has frayed some 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates swine flu has infected more than 5 million people and it is documented as having killed 1,000.
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.
Close to 160 million people are in the priority groups to get vaccine first — healthcare workers, pregnant women, children and adults under 65 with medical conditions, caregivers for infants too young to be vaccinated and people 24 and younger.
New York City health department spokeswoman Jessica Scaperotti said the city is working to distribute the vaccine widely.
“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,” she 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 banker Goldman Sachs (GS.N) getting 200 of the 5,300 doses it asked for, Scaperotti said.
“To put in context, if you look at the 25 largest employers in New York City, about 16 of them have received vaccine,” Scaperotti said.
They include Columbia University, New York University, New York Presbyterian Healthcare System, Citi Group (C.N) and others, as well as the Federal Reserve Bank, which is not among the top 25 employers.
She said public hospitals have received 8 percent of the available vaccines, private hospitals about 13 percent and 39 percent was set aside for school vaccination programs.
Employee health centers must sign an agreement that they will only administer the vaccine to those in identified high risk groups, Scaperotti said.
The CDC planned to send out a letter later on Thursday reminding vaccinating centers who the priority groups are.
“Goldman Sachs, like other responsible employers, has requested vaccine and will supply it only to employees who qualify based on the requirements identified by the CDC and Department of Health,” the company said in a statement. Citi released a similar pledge. (Reporting by Bill Berkrot, Dan Wilchins and Maggie Fox, editing by Alan Elsner) ((Maggie.Fox@ThomsonReuters.com; Washington bureau newsroom 202-898-8492))