More Massachusetts hospital workers are getting flu shots, but new data show the numbers remain below the goal set by state regulators, who say the lack of vaccinations exposes patients to a heightened risk of infection.
Roughly 85 percent of workers at the state’s acute care hospitals received flu shots during the most recent season, up from 81 percent a year earlier. The goal of the state Department of Public Health is a minimum of 90 percent.
As employers launch their fall flu shot campaigns, health officials are urging hospitals to become more aggressive, while crossing their fingers that this season’s flu strains will not be as virulent as last year’s. Influenza slammed Massachusetts unusually early and with uncharacteristic force last year, sickening thousands by mid-December, a full month earlier than normal.
“It’s an area we are very concerned about,” said Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, interim associate state public health commissioner. “Health care professionals, unfortunately, can become [disease carriers]. This opportunity to get immunized prevents considerable threat.”
High vaccination rates also help ensure that hospitals will have enough healthy staff able to work if patients flood in during a serious flu outbreak.
Biondolillo noted that, overall, the hospitals’ vaccination rates have improved considerably from 2010, when just 71 percent of workers had received their flu shot.
Still, the data show that fewer than a third of the state’s 76 acute care hospitals hit the minimum 90 percent or higher vaccination rate for all workers, including staff, independent contractors, and volunteers.
Significantly more hospitals, nearly half, cracked the 90 percent threshold for vaccination rates when just their salaried staff was counted.
Some of the facilities managed to dramatically increase vaccination rates, while others barely moved the needle and some saw declines.
One hospital that recorded significant gains, rising from the basement to the rafters, is Anna Jaques in Newburyport, a 123-bed hospital with about 1,000 employees.
The turnaround hinged on a strict new policy that required all workers to receive a shot, with no exemptions for religious or health reasons. If workers refused, they were required to wear a mask at all times, except while eating in the cafeteria, said Delia O’Connor, the hospital’s chief executive.
“We explained to all our employees that this was not about their individual liberty,” O’Connor said. “This is about protecting the health of our patients, and that trumps everything else.”
The vaccination rate shot up from 61 percent to 97 percent, though some workers got shots only grudgingly.
“We had very good compliance, and I would not say it was all with a light heart and good tidings,” O’Connor said. The pay off, she said, was that fewer workers got sick last year.
Biondolillo said her agency chatted with leaders at many of the hospitals that had low vaccination rates, including Anna Jaques, encouraging them to follow the 2011 example set by Lahey Clinic, which mandated shots for every worker and required holdouts to wear masks. Lahey’s numbers show that its vaccination rates soared within weeks from around 70 percent to 96 percent that year. Its latest numbers stand at 97 percent. Biondolillo said other hospitals that adopted similar policies also notched high percentages.
But the trend is going in reverse at a number of other hospitals, most of all at Steward Health Care System, which includes St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton and Quincy Medical Center. The state’s data included 10 of Steward’s 11 hospitals, and none had vaccination rates above 79 percent. Many reported declining numbers.
“During last year’s flu season, we had an increased number of employees decline the vaccine,” Steward said in a statement. “We are looking into the cause. We are actively reviewing our flu vaccination policies to determine if they need to be changed. We will also be conducting an internal education campaign about the importance of receiving the vaccine.”
State data also showed declines at some large Boston hospitals, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a flagship of the Partners HealthCare system. The Brigham released a statement saying the decline was predominantly due to a new method used by state and federal regulators to calculate the rates.
“The change meant that we were unable to count employees who were vaccinated and worked less than 30 days during flu season,” it said. “In past years, these employees were included in overall vaccination rates.”
The difference meant that about 600 workers were not in the latest count, it said. The hospital said it is launching an “extensive employee communication campaign” to boost rates but would not mandate shots.
State regulators do not expect to mandate vaccination for hospital workers, Biondolillo said, because federal officials have started requiring hospitals to report the information, and she believes federal regulators will soon tie hospital reimbursements to vaccination rates, creating a more powerful incentive for hospitals to mandate their workers get shots.