The health care professional who is supposed to help us get healthy and stay that way shouldn’t be the person who makes us sick. Yet a new report by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that flu vaccination rates among health care providers vary widely, and are particularly troubling in long-term care centers, which often are responsible for the health of fragile elderly people.
The report looks at flu vaccination rates for the 2017-18 season, which hit the country especially hard. More than 80,000 Americans died, more than in any year in the last four decades. In addition, 180 children died, more than in any non-pandemic flu season. In other words, it was a year when Americans should have been able to feel that their health-care provider was doing everything possible to keep them from getting ill.
The Healthy People 2020 goal is for 90 percent of health care workers to be vaccinated against the flu.
And indeed, the CDC report released in early October found several bright spots in which that goal was met and exceeded: Flu vaccination rates were high among hospital employees, at 91.9 percent. Doctors were especially likely to get their shots, at 96.1 percent, followed by pharmacists and nurses, whose vaccination rates were also above 90 percent. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants came in a little below, at 87.8 percent.
But other clinical health care workers were much less likely to be vaccinated. Only a little more than 70 percent of health care assistants and aides, many of whom work directly with patients, were vaccinated. Personnel in ambulatory care – clinics and doctors’ offices – also were less likely to be vaccinated, at 75 percent. Rates were similar for other clinical settings – you might not have thought about whether your dental hygienist, for example, might spread the flu to you.
Vaccine requirements by employers made a huge difference, the CDC found. Nearly 95 percent of staff were vaccinated when their employers required it; the lowest vaccination rates were found among those working in places where vaccination was not required, promoted or offered on-site – only 47.6 percent.
Overall, health care personnel are vaccinated at higher rates than the general public, but patients should have the right to expect that, because health providers are charged with protecting the health of their clients, who also are frequently ill and at greater risk.
The report found one particularly disturbing situation: Vaccination rates were low among health care personnel in long-term care settings such as nursing homes. Most of these were assistants and aides. Only slightly more than two-thirds of these health care workers had been vaccinated, and the report found that long-term care facilities were also the least likely to require their employees to be vaccinated – only 30% did so.
These facilities care for particularly frail people, most commonly the elderly, in whom the flu vaccine tends to be less effective, and who are at much greater risk for severe complications and death from the flu. They especially need those around them to be flu-free, and particularly the workers who are touching them, dressing them, preparing their food and other activities that bring them into close contact.
“Implementing workplace strategies shown to improve vaccination coverage among health care personnel, including vaccination requirements and active promotion of on-site vaccinations at no cost, can help ensure health care personnel and patients are protected against influenza,” the report concluded.
Certainly, while looking at health care settings, it’s worth asking about their vaccination policies. That might be especially true when considering nursing homes and other long-term health care facilities for the elderly and other frail patients. Do they know how many of their staff are vaccinated against the flu? Do they require vaccination for their staff, and provide it for employees on-site?
Once health-care professionals and the settings where they work know that this is important to patients and their families, it might become more important to them.
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