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Hospital staffs face calls to get flu shots

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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Roughly 71 percent of employees at acute care hospitals in Massachusetts received flu vaccinations last season, according to a report released yesterday by state public health regulators.

The percentages have increased since the 2008-2009 season, but not nearly to the levels regulators had hoped for. That spurred a debate about mandating vaccines for hospital workers at a meeting of the Public Health Council, an appointed panel of doctors, consumer advocates, and professors.

Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, director of the Bureau of Healthcare Safety and Quality, presented a proposal calling on all acute care hospitals to aim for an employee vaccination rate this flu season of greater than 90 percent and no lower than 73 percent.

The measure would be voluntary.

But some council members said the state may have to take stronger action to boost vaccination rates. The goal is to keep hospital employees from spreading the flu to patients and to ensure that a large number of caregivers do not fall ill amid a flu outbreak.

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

Dr. Robert A. Duncan, an infectious disease specialist at Lahey Clinic, said his hospital boosted its rate last season from about 70 percent on Dec. 6 to 96 percent eight weeks later. Its policy required every employee who declined a shot to wear a surgical mask during the entire flu season whenever he or she was within 6 feet of another person, whether or not the job involved direct patient contact.

“The mask is admittedly inferior to the vaccine, and it’s a pain in the neck,’’ Duncan said. But, he said, the policy spurred most holdouts to be vaccinated, albeit often after one-on-one counseling from disease specialists.

“We did not have a legal challenge, and we did not lose any employees over this,’’ Duncan said.

Dr. Alan Woodward, past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and a council member, proposed that the board adopt a resolution to support hospitals and other health agency programs that boost rates “through all appropriate means up to and including mandatory immunization.’’

But council member Harold Cox, an associate dean at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said the council should not “be wimpy’’ and should consider stronger action.

“I understand the importance of being measured and incrementalism,’’ he said, “but if we think it’s important, we ought to say it.’’

The council, which lost a quorum during the meeting before the issue could be voted on, rescheduled the matter until October.

Late yesterday, the Massachusetts Hospital Association issued a statement from its chief executive, Lynn Nicholas, strongly supporting mandatory flu shots for all hospital employees. Nicholas said it was “unacceptable and a huge disservice to patients’’ that about 20 percent of employees at acute care hospitals statewide refused to be vaccinated last year.

The latest report showed that acute care hospitals with the highest rates of vaccination during the last flu season were: Lahey, 96.1 percent; Children’s Hospital Boston, 91.3 percent; Fairview Hospital, 88.4 percent; Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, 83.4 percent; and Newton-Wellesley Hospital, 83 percent.

Hospitals with the lowest rates were: Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital, 37.5 percent; Clinton Hospital, 46.2 percent; St. Luke’s Hospital/Southcoast, 47.8 percent; Mercy Medical Center, 48.9 percent; and Tobey Hospital/Southcoast, 52.2 percent.

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