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Got your flu shot? Less than half of health care workers do

POSTED: December 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Licensed practical nurse Jenny Reed administers a flu shot to Beverly Pruitt, the Women, Infants and Children program assistant, on Wednesday at the Hall County Health Department. Although it is not mandatory for health care workers to get flu vaccinations, hospitals and health agencies recommend it to their employees.

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You’ve probably seen the public service announcements on TV recently about "the faces of influenza." These commercials urge you to get a flu shot if you’re at risk for flu, or if you’re a caregiver for someone who is.

The message is that you don’t want to take a chance on transmitting the flu virus to someone who’s already in poor health.

But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than half of all health care workers get a flu shot.

Dr. David Westfall, director of District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, finds this unacceptable.

"There’s no good reason for not getting (the shot), and there’s every reason in the world to get it," he said.

The reasons health care workers don’t get a flu shot are based on the same fears and beliefs that prevail in the general population. And that’s what bothers Westfall; he thinks people who’ve had medical training should know better.

"Some health professionals think they’re above the risk, that they’re not susceptible, and that’s a myth," he said. "And some health care workers are still ignorant about the facts of the vaccine. They think it can cause the flu, which is absolutely not true. And they think the side effects would be worse than getting the flu."

According to the CDC, the only people who should not receive a flu shot are those who are allergic to eggs, who have had a previous severe reaction to a flu shot, or who have had an illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

But Westfall said the number of adults with egg allergies is "minuscule, and reactions to flu shots are even more rare."

By contrast, actually getting sick with influenza can be devastating. Each year in the United States, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized because of flu complications, and about 36,000 die.

Most susceptible are the elderly and people with chronic health conditions. These vulnerable individuals also happen to be the ones most likely to come into contact with health care workers.

To protect patients, you might think that hospitals would require employees to get a flu shot, or to sign a waiver if they are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.

But very few hospitals do.

"We can’t mandate that someone take the vaccine, because that is an invasive procedure," said Donna Anderson, manager of employee health at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

However, the hospital does encourage workers to get their flu shots. "We educate employees through e-mails, newsletters, and we talk to them at staff meetings," said Anderson.

In October, the hospital held about a dozen flu vaccination clinics at various sites, offering the shots to employees free of charge. Since the clinics ended, the shots have been available on demand every day in the employee health office.

Anderson said so far, about 48 percent of the hospital’s full- and part-time employees have received their shots. That may not sound like a lot, but Anderson said it’s better than last year, when 46 percent were vaccinated.

She said participation varies widely among the departments. In the health system’s two nursing homes and at the Laurelwood mental health unit, for example, almost 100 percent of workers have been vaccinated.

Angela Edwards, a nurse practitioner in disease management at the medical center, said they will continue promoting flu shots through the end of January.

"On Dec. 12, which is Flu Shots for Health Workers Day, we plan to visit the different departments and offer the shots to workers who have not had it yet," Edwards said.

At the Longstreet Clinic, Gainesville’s largest multispecialty medical practice, employee wellness coordinator Lorrie Caruana said flu shots are "strongly encouraged, especially in primary care."

Longstreet provides flu shots to employees free of charge; it also offers them free vaccines for hepatitis B, tetanus and chicken pox.

Caruana said she still hears old wives’ tales about flu shots from some employees.

"Some people say, ‘I took a shot years ago and I got sick,’" she said. "But the vaccine is different now. It’s not made with a live virus."

Caruana said almost 100 percent of the workers in Longstreet’s pediatrics department have been vaccinated, as have nearly all of those in oncology. The latter is particularly important, because cancer patients have weakened immune systems and shouldn’t be exposed to the flu virus.

Caruana said participation is lower among those who aren’t directly involved in patient care. "In departments such as medical records, it’s about 60 to 80 percent," she said.

Westfall said about 77 percent of employees throughout the 13 health departments in District 2 have received a flu shot this year. But he thinks they can do better.

"We want to make it 100 percent," he said.

Westfall said he’s scheduled a Dec. 15 meeting with the leaders of all the region’s health departments. "We are going to move toward mandating (flu shots) in our health district," he said.

One reason for the change is to protect patients from infection. But it’s also about being good role models.

"I think we, of all people, need to be setting an example," Westfall said. "It’s hypocritical for our people to hold flu clinics when they haven’t had the shot themselves."

Westfall doesn’t buy the argument that requiring workers to get flu shots would be too coercive or an invasion of privacy.

"We already mandate certain vaccines for our employees, such as measles-mumps-rubella," he said. "We mandate hepatitis B for people who have direct patient contact. And we mandate a TB (tuberculosis) skin test on a regular basis. So there is a precedent."

Even if employees don’t care whether they get the flu or not, in these tough economic times they should care about their finances, Westfall said. Influenza can leave a person bedridden for a week or more.

"Getting sick and not being able to work is going to cost you money," he said. "So think of the shot as an investment."



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