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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Hospitals still lag in staff flu shots

Numbers renew mandate debate

Despite increasing scrutiny from state regulators, many Massachusetts hospital workers are failing to get flu vaccinations, exposing patients to a heightened risk of infection, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Public Health.

Roughly 81 percent of employees at the state’s acute care hospitals received flu shots during the most recent season, the report said.

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The percentages increased from a statewide average of about 71 percent during the previous season but fell short of regulators’ goal of 90 percent. That sparked renewed debate about mandating vaccines for hospital workers during Wednesday’s meeting of the Public Health Council, an appointed panel of doctors, consumer advocates, and professors.

Of particular concern to council members is the stubbornly high percentage of hospital workers who decline a flu shot.

State rules require hospital workers to be vaccinated or sign a form declining the shot. The rules allow for medical and religious exemptions.

Among hospitals with the lowest vaccination rates is Anna Jacques in Newburyport, a 123-bed hospital with about 1,000 employees. State numbers show that just 61 percent of workers were vaccinated, down from about 68 percent the previous season.

“We have had ready access and lots of urging of our employees, yet the rate [of those who declined the shot] has clearly remained unacceptably high,’’ said Delia O’Connor, the hospital’s president and chief executive.

O’Connor said she was encouraged that a number of other community hospitals managed to significantly boost their numbers, a sign that it is possible for smaller facilities with more limited resources like hers to measurably improve.

A number of hospitals have adopted policies in the past year of mandating vaccinations, and several others are considering it. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston made the shots mandatory as a condition of employment for staffers who have direct contact with patients, and its vaccination rates jumped from 80 percent to about 94 percent, state numbers show.

Sharon Wright, the hospital’s director of infection control, said department leaders spent a lot of time explaining to staff that the shots were safe and necessary to protect patients.

“We also had data available in real time from all of our sites, so they could see who had responded and who didn’t,’’ Wright said.

Newton-Wellesley Hospital notched the highest vaccination rate, with 101.8 percent, according to state figures. State regulators said fluctuations in staff throughout the year can slightly increase or decrease the apparent percentages of employees vaccinated, resulting in the rate higher than 100 percent.

Dr. Mark Drapkin, the hospital’s associate chief of infectious diseases, said he thought the state’s numbers painted a too-rosy picture of its vaccination rates. Drapkin said he believed the rate was closer to 88 percent, which is about 5 percentage points higher than previously.

“I would personally welcome a mandatory approach, but if one can persuade people to do the right thing, it’s much better than forcing someone to do the right thing,’’ Drapkin said. “We have this discussion every year.’’

State regulators last fall decided not to make vaccination of staff mandatory at acute care hospitals and instead approved a resolution that supports hospitals that are on their own requiring the immunizations “as a condition of employment.’’

Public Health Council members said at the time that higher vaccination rates are needed to keep hospital employees from spreading the flu to patients and to ensure a large number of caregivers don’t fall ill amid a flu outbreak.

They said they would track the issue and revisit it in the spring.

Iyah Romm, director of policy, health planning, and strategic development at the state health department, said that while nearly 84 percent of hospitals met the minimum benchmark of vaccinating at least 73 percent of its workers, the department feels strong action is still needed against stragglers.

“We are sending a rather stern communication making it clear that the department does not feel [these low levels] are acceptable,’’ Romm said.

He said the department also plans to encourage better performance by publicizing the names of hospitals that boost their vaccination rates as well as those doing a poor job.

Council members agreed to again hold off on mandating flu shots for hospital workers but agreed to boost the minimum benchmark vaccination rate each hospital should achieve to 83 percent.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

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