In an effort to prevent health care workers from spreading the flu to patients this winter, Contra Costa and Alameda County health officials are requiring medical staff to receive vaccinations or wear a surgical mask on the job.
Health officials say flu vaccination rates among health care workers are dangerously low – 60 percent of those working in California hospitals received the vaccine in the 2010-11 flu season, according to the most recent data available from the California Department of Public Health.
Officials hope the requirements will help prevent the spread of the virus to patients most vulnerable to its life-threatening complications, particularly the elderly, whose weakening immune systems may render the flu vaccine less effective.
Nationally, this year’s flu season has started early and may be shaping up to be a bad one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among those locally requiring vaccination or masks this year are health officials in San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties.
“This is a way that health care workers can prevent transmitting a possibly deadly disease to their patients,” said Erika Jenssen, communicable disease programs manager for Contra Costa Health Services.
The CDC recommends that everyone at least 6 months old get an annual flu shot; because flu viruses are constantly changing, a new vaccine is needed every year. But it is a recommendation that even some health care workers don’t follow.
Vaccinating patients is, unfortunately, no substitute for their caregivers receiving the shot. Some patients who are most at risk from flu complications don’t receive as much immunity from the vaccination as healthier people do.
All hospitals in California are required to offer free flu shots to their workers. Personnel must either get vaccinated or sign a statement declining to do so. Some people may not get the shots for medical reasons, such as those who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs, according to the CDC.