State health regulators will start cracking down on acute care hospitals that have large numbers of workers who do not receive a flu shot, but are stopping short of mandating the vaccine, according to plans unveiled Wednesday.
At roughly one-third of Massachusetts’ acute care hospitals, fewer than 80 percent of health care personnel received a flu shot this past flu season, new data from the state Department of Public Health show.
The statewide median among the hospitals was 86 percent, which is below the 90 percent goal regulators have long sought.
Hospital vaccination rates did not improve from past years, despite repeated urging from the health department, and broad variations among individual hospitals persist. Vaccinated workers are less likely to fall ill and spread the illness to patients.
“The department is sending letters to . . . hospitals that have not yet tightened up their belts,” said Madeleine Biondolillo, the department’s associate commissioner.
Most of the 75 acute care hospitals reported having health care workers whose vaccination status was unknown — 15 had more than 10 percent of employees in this category — and they will be getting letters from the health department alerting them that this category is unacceptable under state rules.
These hospitals will be required to file a “plan of correction” with the department, stating how they will rectify the problem, Biondolillo said. Hospitals whose plans are not acceptable risk being issued a deficiency statement, a public reprimand.
The stagnant vaccination rates have long frustrated members of the state’s Public Health Council, an appointed body of academics and health advocates that approves health regulations.
“I am hoping . . . if the data looks identical next round, that we are ready to mandate” flu shots, said Dr. Alan Woodward, a council member and past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
Some large teaching hospitals have mandated the shot for workers and the latest data show this has made a difference: They had the highest vaccination rates.
By comparison, Steward Health Care System, which includes St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton and Quincy Medical Center, had among the lowest rates for its 10 acute care hospitals. Their rates ranged from 67 percent to 83 percent.
“Steward is committed to doing everything it can to increase flu vaccination rates,” the company said in a statement. “New this year, Steward will require all employees to receive the flu vaccine or wear a mask when they are caring for patients.”
The Massachusetts Hospital Association “strongly supports mandatory flu vaccination for all hospital employees,” the association’s president, Lynn Nicholas, said in a statement. The association filed legislation last year that would make flu shots mandatory for all health care workers statewide. That proposal is pending.
“Flu vaccination is one vital way to ensure delivery of safe and high quality health care, and anything less than 100 percent compliance is unacceptable and a disservice to patients,” Nicholas said.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association has long opposed mandatory flu shots, along with policies that require health care workers who are not vaccinated to wear a mask while on duty. Its strategy statement calls such policies “misguided and ineffective,” and says patients, visitors, and vendors, who might not follow basic prevention measures such as washing their hands, could be more likely to spread illnesses, yet are allowed to walk freely around hospitals without wearing a mask.
Vaccination rates were highest among hospitals in the Metro Boston area, and lowest in those in Western Massachusetts and north of Boston.
The hospitals with the highest rates — each reporting 99 percent — were Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, and Winchester Hospital.
Cape Cod Hospital had the lowest flu shot rate, with just 62 percent of its health care workers vaccinated.