New Jersey hospitals try carrot, stick and more to coax health workers to get flu shots

     (Mary Ann Chastain/AP Photo)

    (Mary Ann Chastain/AP Photo)

    As flu season is about kicks in to full gear, hospitals have been stepping up efforts to vaccinate their workers. But federal data shows that has been a challenge in New Jersey, where healthcare personnel have the lowest flu vaccination rate in the country.

    New Jersey’s flu vaccine rate is about 70 percent for health care personnel. The national average is 85 percent in that sector.

    The rates generally vary by health worker category.

    Hackensack University Medical Center in North Jersey has especially struggled with its rates. Before this year, fewer than half of its 8,000 workers got the flu shot.

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    After surveying employees last year, they then held several “town halls” this fall. Management launched an education campaign to dispel flu shot myths and created a roving flu team that goes to different buildings offering the vaccine. Suzanne Gallagher with the hospital’s employee health department says they also enacted a new policy this flu season.

    “The employees would be given a choice, to either opt in and take take the flu vaccine or to wear a mask,” she said.

    As of November 1, anyone who wasn’t vaccinated had to wear a mask, as is now recommended by the American Hospital Association.

    Gallagher says vaccination rates for employees have since gone up to 90 percent. And for employees who are scared of needles, they ordered more doses of the nasal spray version.

    Other hospitals just make it mandatory, such as Lourdes Health System, headquartered in Camden.

    “I think it’s just considered a matter of fact in working within the health care system at this point in time,” says Lourdes Chief Medical Officer Alan Pope. “People know that while it may protect themselves in taking the vaccination, more importantly, they’re helping to protect our patients.”

    Pope says eventually almost everyone complied.  “There was one person I know of who was let go,” said Pope. “I don’t know of any others.”

    The New Jersey Hospital Association says mandates are a small but growing trend.

    More than the mandate itself, Pope credits Lourdes’ success from creating education campaigns and making the vaccine very accessible to staff at work.

    Employees there have until December 17 to get vaccinated.

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