Local health workers diligently get flu shots

Rates in county are above 90 percent, compared to just 70 percent nationally

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Flu facts

• The flu can flare up anytime, but the season typically runs from October through May. In the last couple of years, flu season in Clark County and across the country has emerged later — as late as March. But there is no way for health officials to predict when the disease will start to spread in a given year.

• Currently, influenza activity is low in Clark County and across the state, according to health officials.

Physicians, nurses and public health officials are always the first to urge people to get a flu shot. But are they heeding their own advice?

For the most part, they are, according to recent research.

A Sept. 28 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that, overall, about 70 percent of health care workers received an influenza vaccine during the 2011-12 flu season.

Physicians posted the best immunization rate (86 percent), followed by nurses (78 percent). Health care workers in hospitals had a vaccination rate of about 77 percent, while 68 percent of those who worked in physician offices were vaccinated, according to the CDC report.

By comparison, the general population ages 6 months and older had a vaccination rate of 41.8% nationally during the 2011-12 flu season, and 41.7% in Washington, according to the CDC.

Vaccination rates for the general population were not available for Clark County, but health officials say influenza immunization policies in place at hospitals, physician offices and the county health department have bumped the local health care worker immunization rates above the national average.

Clark County Public Health workers boast a flu immunization rate of 95 percent this year. PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center expects to also reach 95 percent, once it completes outreach efforts. And at The Vancouver Clinic, about 90 percent of staff has received a flu shot this year.

The county health department has a mandatory flu vaccine policy in place for its 82 employees. The department's immunization rate has been in the high 90s for a couple years, said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer.

"We do require it," Melnick said. "And if they haven't had the vaccine and there's a flu outbreak, they have to use vacation time."

If employees don't have enough vacation time, they must take unpaid leave, Melnick said.

At PeaceHealth Southwest, flu vaccines are required for staff working in patient care settings, said Sara Perkins, nurse manager of employee health at PeaceHealth Southwest. Those who don't get vaccinated must wear masks, she said.

Each year, the hospital orders thousands of doses of the flu vaccine and holds clinics for employees. It also designates nurses in various hospital units and clinics to administer the vaccines to employees, volunteers and providers from other facilities, Perkins said.

The Vancouver Clinic collaborated with area hospitals to implement a similar standard within its facilities, said Dr. Jeremy Chrisman, Vancouver Clinic medical director for primary care. Employees who don't get immunized must wear masks in common areas and patient care settings, he said.

The top reason for the policies, according to health officials, is to protect the public.

While healthier people may shed the illness quickly, people with other ailments are at greater risk for complications, Perkins said.

"I want to do everything I can to make sure I'm not the one who spread that infection," she said.

The policies also help ensure organizations have enough workers during an outbreak, Melnick said. The flu can circulate in a community for up to 12 weeks. An under-immunized workforce can affect facilities' ability to function for quite a while, he said.

Another reason for immunization policies, Melnick said, is to encourage health officials to practice what they preach.

"As public health officials who are supporting immunization efforts, we need to model the behavior," he said. "Why recommend it if we're not getting it ourselves?"

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.