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Nearly half of healthcare workers in California hospitals did not receive flu shots

September 02, 2010

Flu season may be a bad time to check into a California hospital--and probably everywhere else in the country as well.

In a demonstration of what many experts would call appalling medical ethics, only slightly more than half of healthcare workers in California hospitals received a flu shot last year, despite the dangers that presents for patients. The vaccination rate was less than 25% in 3.3% of the hospitals, according to data compiled by the state health department and obtained by Consumers Union through a Public Records Act request. Moreover, 31% of hospitals in the state did not report their vaccination rate to the health department despite a law requiring it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended flu shots for all healthcare workers, including physicians, with direct patient contact since the early 1980s and for all healthcare workers since 1993. Studies have shown a strong correlation between lack of flu vaccination among hospital workers and patients contracting the disease. When patients who have entered the hospital because they are already sick become infected, the consequences can be severe, even life-threatening. The mortality rate for hospital-acquired flu has been documented at 16%, with an average additional cost of $7,500 per patient, Consumers Union said.

Earlier this week, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology and the Infectious Diseases Society of America said that hospital workers should be required to get a flu shot or lose their jobs unless such an immunization is medically contra-indicated, such as by an allergy to eggs, which are used in manufacturing the vaccines.

Beginning in 2006, California hospitals have been required to offer free influenza vaccinations to their employees. Starting in January 2008, hospitals were required to report to the health department the number who were vaccinated and the number who refused. The California Department of Public Health was supposed to report data for the 2008-09 flu season to the public by March of this year, but did not do so.

According to the data, 299 hospitals reported their results and 136 did not. The agency told Consumers Union that it may have lost some of the submitted records and that some hospitals may have been confused about the reporting requirements. "It appears that either a large number of California hospitals failed to report their flu vaccination rates as required by law or the state has a very sloppy record-keeping system," Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project, said in a statement.

 The data from the state showed that:

 -- the average vaccination rate reported by hospitals was 52.4%;

 -- 3.3% of hospitals had vaccination rates less than 25%;

 -- two-thirds had vaccination rates less than 60%, the 2010 target set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services;

 -- only 1.6% had vaccination rates greater than 80%, the rate suggested by some experts as necessary to prevent in-hospital transmission.

Local data obtained by The Times as of Nov. 2, 2009, after pandemic H1N1 influenza had peaked, show that only 3,504 county healthcare employees had been vaccinated out of a target population of 17,979 workers. Among contract employees, volunteers and student staff, only 802 had been vaccinated out of a target population of 7,109.

The bottom line: Get your own flu shot and you won't have to worry about thoughtless healthcare workers.

Thomas H. Maugh II / Los Angeles Times

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