The health care professional who is supposed to help us get healthy and stay that way shouldn’t be
the person who makes us sick. Yet a new report
by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that flu vaccination rates among health
care providers vary widely, and are particularly troubling in long-term care centers, which often
are responsible for the health of fragile elderly people.
The report looks at flu vaccination rates for the 2017-18 season, which hit the country especially
hard. More than 80,000 Americans died, more than in any year in the last four decades. In addition,
180 children died, more than in any non-pandemic flu season. In other words, it was a year when
Americans should have been able to feel that their health-care provider was doing everything
possible to keep them from getting ill.
The Healthy People 2020 goal is for 90 percent of health care workers to be vaccinated against the
And indeed, the CDC report released in early October found several bright spots in which that goal
was met and exceeded: Flu vaccination rates were high among hospital employees, at 91.9 percent.
Doctors were especially likely to get their shots, at 96.1 percent, followed by pharmacists and
nurses, whose vaccination rates were also above 90 percent. Nurse practitioners and physician
assistants came in a little below, at 87.8 percent.
But other clinical health care workers were much less likely to be vaccinated. Only a little more
than 70 percent of health care assistants and aides, many of whom work directly with patients, were
vaccinated. Personnel in ambulatory care – clinics and doctors’ offices – also were less likely to
be vaccinated, at 75 percent. Rates were similar for other clinical settings – you might not have
thought about whether your dental hygienist, for example, might spread the flu to you.
Vaccine requirements by employers made a huge difference, the CDC found. Nearly 95 percent of staff
were vaccinated when their employers required it; the lowest vaccination rates were found among
those working in places where vaccination was not required, promoted or offered on-site – only 47.6
Overall, health care personnel are vaccinated at higher rates than the general public, but patients
should have the right to expect that, because health providers are charged with protecting the
health of their clients, who also are frequently ill and at greater risk.
The report found one particularly disturbing situation: Vaccination rates were low among health
care personnel in long-term care settings such as nursing homes. Most of these were assistants and
aides. Only slightly more than two-thirds of these health care workers had been vaccinated, and the
report found that long-term care facilities were also the least likely to require their employees to
be vaccinated – only 30% did so.
These facilities care for particularly frail people, most commonly the elderly, in whom the flu
vaccine tends to be less effective, and who are at much greater risk for severe complications and
death from the flu. They especially need those around them to be flu-free, and particularly the
workers who are touching them, dressing them, preparing their food and other activities that bring
them into close contact.
“Implementing workplace strategies shown to improve vaccination coverage among health care
personnel, including vaccination requirements and active promotion of on-site vaccinations at no
cost, can help ensure health care personnel and patients are protected against influenza,” the
Certainly, while looking at health care settings, it’s worth asking about their vaccination
policies. That might be especially true when considering nursing homes and other long-term health
care facilities for the elderly and other frail patients. Do they know how many of their staff are
vaccinated against the flu? Do they require vaccination for their staff, and provide it for
Once health-care professionals and the settings where they work know that this is important to
patients and their families, it might become more important to them.
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