The medical community promotes getting a flu shot, which is the proven best way to avoid getting the flu or at least decrease the severity of the illness. But it turns out that for too many in that community, it’s do as I say, not as I do.
Fewer than 60 percent of employees at nine New Jersey hospitals got flu shots during the 2016-17 flu season, according to data released last month by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. At six other hospitals in the state, between 60 and 75 percent of employees got flu shots.
This is an unacceptable compliance rate because influenza is a deadly threat to patients who are children, seniors and those already weakened by illness. Flu is easily spread through droplets in the air or by direct contact on surfaces.
This year is the worst for influenza in nearly a decade, with more than 14,000 New Jersey cases identified by lab tests and many more untested. By the end of February, flu had killed more than 114 children nationwide this season.
Flu shots for all health-provider employees protect not just patients but the workers themselves, their families and friends. Given the overwhelming benefit, even the good programs at some South Jersey hospitals that achieve 88 percent vaccination rates are insufficient.
Inspira Health Network has taken the right approach with a strong flu vaccination mandate at its three South Jersey hospitals. As a result, the vaccination rate at Inspira Vineland increased from 45 percent last year to 99 percent this year.
We think all hospitals will be achieving similar rates soon, as the vaccination mandate continues to spread and attains nationwide acceptance as a best practice.
Mandating flu shots briefly became an issue last fall when a large Midwest system, Essentia Health, mandated vaccinations and fired 69 employees who didn’t comply or qualify for a rare exemption. Of the system’s 13,900 employees, 99.5 percent got flu shots.
The firings by Essentia have been the subject of a lawsuit and union grievances by the Minnesota Nurses Association. But the health system’s flu shot policy is very similar to that of the highly regarded Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Johns Hopkins says “voluntary programs have not been effective at significantly increasing vaccination rates” and that wearing face masks and washing hands is not as effective as vaccination.
The hospital requires everyone on each campus to be vaccinated unless they get a rare medical exemption (a severe allergy to the vaccine, for example) or religious exemption. Employees who fail to comply are put on unpaid leave for three days and if still unvaccinated at the end of that time are considered to have resigned. Unvaccinated non-employed medical personnel lose their staff privileges and volunteers, students and others are barred from all facilities.
Johns Hopkins requires the very few who qualify for exemptions to wear a surgical mask whenever they enter a patient’s room or come within 6 feet of a patient.
This is how it should be everywhere. Flu vaccination should simply be a requirement for being part of a care-providing organization. That will provide the best protection against influenza and set a good example for the public, which could use some encouragement to increase its vaccination rate.