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Healthcare workers urged to get flu shot, but some hospitals lag behind

Simone Groper got her flu shot in January at a Walgreens pharmacy in San Francisco. Flu season will likely last a few more weeks, health officials say, and immunization can still minimize your chances of getting seriously sick.
Simone Groper got her flu shot in January at a Walgreens pharmacy in San Francisco. Flu season will likely last a few more weeks, health officials say, and immunization can still minimize your chances of getting seriously sick.

Flu vaccination rates among staff at Lansing-area hospitals lag behind averages for hospitals across the state and nation.

That's according to data reported by hospitals to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid covering last year's flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend annual flu shots for people over 6 months old and says the shots are especially important for people in high-risk settings like hospitals.

At Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, 78% of 6,142 workers got jabbed against last year's flu season — below the national average of 86% and the statewide average of 90% for hospital workers.

At McLaren Greater Lasing, the rate was only 63% among 3,563 employees. McLaren representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

At Sparrow, flu vaccines are highly encouraged for staff although, because of union bargaining, they are not mandatory, said Dr. Michael Zaroukian, a Sparrow vice president and chief medical information officer. So far this year, about 79% of staff at all Sparrow hospitals have their flu vaccines, Zaroukian said on Dec. 20.

Flu vaccination rates among U.S. hospital workers appear to be much higher than the general population's. Nationwide, just over 50% of American adults got their flu shots during the 2020-21 season, the CDC estimates.

But some health care workers may be skipping vaccinations because of the same misperceptions circulating in the public, said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

"Despite this overwhelming data, unfortunately, we do have a lot of folks who, who have a concern about getting vaccinated for one thing or another," Peters said. "And that's just the battle we have to fight every single day."

Last year's flu season was relatively tame, likely because of measures taken to prevent the novel coronavirus.

"The reason we saw less flu last year was proof of how helpful masks social, distancing, handwashing, all of the things that make a respiratory virus move from one person to another (are)," Zaroukian said.

Still, experts say it's especially important to get jabbed against both the flu and COVID-19 to prevent a "twindemic."

"The last thing we can afford right now is to see hospitals inundated with flu patients, whether that's presenting in the emergency departments where we're seeing record high volumes or whether that's the need for inpatient hospitalization at a time where our hospital beds are filled, our intensive care units are filled," Peters said.

Some Michigan hospitals are mandating both flu and COVID-19 vaccines for people without medical or religious exemptions — Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson and St. Joseph Mercy hospital in Chelsea are among them and they have some of the highest flu vaccination rates in the region.

At Jackson's Henry Ford Allegiance Health, the rate was 96% among 4,857 employees.

"Employees receiving annual vaccinations are likely to take fewer sick days, require less time off for doctor visits and experience fewer days with flu-like symptoms and illness," a hospital spokeswoman said in a statement, noting that the vaccines also protect patients and visitors.

St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea's flu vaccination rate was even higher at 99% of 2,087 employees, last season's data shows.

Sparrow Hospital is not mandating COVID-19 vaccines, but at least 81% of staffers there are fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, Zaroukian said Dec. 20.

And, depending on court rulings, hospital systems may need to require coronavirus vaccines anyway. An executive order from President Joe Biden seeks to require COVID-19 vaccines or regular testing among workers at all businesses with more than 100 employees by early January.

There are also separate COVID vaccine mandates that would apply to health care workers and to organizations that contract with the federal government.