Experts say flu shots are especially important for healthcare workers, but immunization rates vary among Wisconsin hospitals

By Sarah Lehr | Wisconsin Public Radio

As a fierce flu season ravages Wisconsin hospitals, public health officials are once again urging people to get flu shots.

But not all hospitals require their employees to get those vaccines, and hospital immunization rates vary widely, according to a review of federal data by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Across the state and country, the vast majority of hospital staff have received the flu shot, according to data reported by hospitals to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. On average, 90 percent of hospital staff across Wisconsin received the vaccine, which was higher than the national average of 80 percent, according to data covering the latest flu season.

But there were outliers.

INTERACTIVE: Consult vaccination rates

Which hospitals in Wisconsin had the lowest employee flu vaccination rates?

Franklin’s Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital had the lowest flu vaccination rate of any Wisconsin hospital for which data were available. There, just 34 percent of 124 workers were vaccinated against the flu last season, according to CMS reports.

The hospital was founded by the owners of Ascension doctors and Wisconsin, according to its website. An Ascension representative did not respond to a request for comment. Several other Ascension-affiliated hospitals also had among the lowest employee flu vaccination rates in Wisconsin: At the Wisconsin Orthopedic Hospital in Glendale and the Ascension campuses in Milwaukee, Chilton, and Appleton, the employee vaccination rate ranged from 68 % to 70%.

Vernon Memorial Hospital in Viroqua also ranked last in Wisconsin for vacation rates, with 70 percent of employees receiving the flu shot. A spokeswoman said the hospital “strongly encourages” employees to get the flu shot.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges annual flu shots for anyone older than 6 months, and experts say the vaccines are especially important for health care workers.

High flu immunization rates coincide with mandatory vaccinations for employees

Other Wisconsin hospitals had flu vaccination rates close to 100%, and those facilities tend to have mandatory vaccination policies.

Such is the case at Stoughton Hospital Association in Dane County, where 99 percent of 551 workers were vaccinated against the flu last season.

Employees at the Stoughton-based hospital are required to get annual flu shots, as well as one or two shots from a primary series of COVID-19 vaccines, unless they can cite medical or religious exemptions, Amy Hermes said. Chief Nursing Officer of the hospital.

SSM Health, which has seven hospitals in Wisconsin, also requires primary COVID-19 vaccines and has mandated annual flu shots for more than a decade, unless employees use a medical or religious waiver. The purpose of the policy is twofold, said Jenny Bothun, who oversees employee health for SSM Wisconsin.

“One is the protection of our patients and the second is the protection of staff, who we obviously need to keep healthy and in the patient care industry,” Bothun said.

Two SSM hospitals — St. Mary’s in Madison and Ripon Medical Center in Fond Du Lac County — had among the state’s highest flu vaccination rates with 98 percent of staff vaccinated.

Flu shots are especially important for health care workers who interact with patients, as many may be ill, elderly or otherwise vulnerable, said Nancy Foster of the American Hospital Association.

“Like other infectious diseases, influenza can be easily transmitted, and unlike some influenza infectious diseases, it can be transmitted before you know it is symptomatic,” Foster said.

What patients should know about federal flu vaccine statistics

The American Hospital Association recommends hospitals implement mandatory flu vaccination policies for workers or require workers without flu vaccine to wear masks around patients, according to a policy adopted by the association’s board in 2011.

Foster said it is advisable for patients to seek out hospitals with high employee vaccination rates, though he cautioned that the statistic should be just one factor among many when choosing a hospital. Because the figures reported by hospitals to CMS include all hospital staff, the percentage could also include employees who don’t come into regular contact with patients, she said.

“So it could be someone who works in the laundry room or the back office or elsewhere in the facility who won’t have typical patient contact,” he said.

Officials at a Wisconsin hospital say the facility’s latest flu vaccination rate, released by CMS, is not accurate. The most recent report shows that only 43 percent of Hudson Hospital’s 630 employees in St. Croix County received the flu shot, the second lowest rate in all of Wisconsin. Hospital spokeswoman Annelise Heitkamp said the figure was artificially low because the hospital recently switched to a new data collection system, which stopped its reporting. Heitkamp said he believes the actual flu holiday rate for employees last season was at least 70%.

“We are confident that next year’s data will be a complete and true reflection of the vaccination status of our colleagues,” Heitkamp wrote in an email.

Although Hudson Hospital does not require flu shots, staff who are out of date with both COVID-19 and flu vaccinations should wear face masks at all times, Heitkamp said.

As hospitals face triple burden of influenza, COVID and RSV, flu shots are even more important this year

This year’s flu season has been especially tough for hospitals because it started early, said Foster, AHA vice president for quality policy and patient safety. And he said it seems like a lot of people are getting more aggressive flu strains that make them sicker.

As hospitals deal with the triple burden of the spread of COVID-19, influenza and another respiratory virus called RSV, there are reports of shortages of drugs including Tamiflu. That’s why it’s essential that the general public get vaccinated against the flu and be fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, Foster said. There is no vaccine that protects against RSV.

“If you don’t want to get the flu shot for yourself, think about getting it to protect elderly relatives you’ll see on vacation and very young relatives you might see whether it’s RSV or the flu,” Foster said. “We have seen too many children hospitalized this season and we really hope to prevent more.”

Wisconsin Public Radio used data reported by hospitals to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services to create a database of employee flu vaccination rates at Wisconsin hospitals. You can access that data in the search box below. To search for a facility, start by typing the hospital name, hospital address, or zip code or county where it’s located.

This story was produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and is republished with permission. Watch the original story here.

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