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Some San Diego Hospitals Lagging Behind State Flu Vaccination Goal, While Others Exceeding

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Speaker 1: 00:00 The media spotlight may be on the novel Corona virus, but the flu is still the more widespread and dangerous disease in the U S and California is urging more hospital workers to get the flu vaccine. KPBS reporter Taryn mento tells us a new report indicates more than 100,000 hospital employees are choosing not to get the flu shot.

Speaker 2: 00:22 A Velcro cuff squeezes the arm of ed Hollingsworth. The machine checks his blood pressure while a nurse takes his temperature. No fever. That's good news for Hollingsworth because he has a weakened immune system due to undergoing cancer treatment, so he takes extra precaution to avoid getting sick.

Speaker 3: 00:42 I don't get out much now I had to stop substitute.

Speaker 2: 00:44 He says he left because of the fatigue from cancer and stayed away because of the health risks, but it was a difficult decision.

Speaker 3: 00:51 I loved going to one one school and the guy who goes, Oh, a sub and this girl goes, no, he's a good stuff as long as you do your work.

Speaker 2: 00:57 But a common illness like the flu could be deadly and classrooms are filled with germs. Expose myself to all that, but patients like him could be exposed to the flu at the facilities that care for them. The state wants 90% of a hospital staff to be vaccinated against the illness by the end of the next flu season, but new data show nearly 200 of California hospitals are not on track for that, including five in San Diego. At the same time, the region is home to the hospital with the best vaccination rate in the state. My name is Megan Medina. I'm an infection control coordinator at Rady children's hospital C and D goes, Rady has 99% of staff vaccinated. Medina says that's possible because of a strict exemption policy. The County requires unvaccinated hospital employees to wear a mask while working, but they don't have to give any reason for declining. Rabies policy only allows medical excuses.

Speaker 2: 01:53 The employee has to meet with our occupational health department, the San Diego facilities that aren't on track to reach the goal, all allow personal belief exemptions. Alvarado hospital medical center had the lowest vaccination rate in the County at 78% for the record, the worst of the state and LA hospital is 29% Alvarado declined an interview, but Dr. Craig Waco at Scripps health says, the problem is some staff get a flu vaccine elsewhere, but don't provide proof. They don't send it to us, unfortunately. Then we consider them unvaccinated. He pointed to physicians a law designed to block corporate practice of medicine means doctors are licensed independent practitioners, scripts, mercy. Chula Vista is one of those not on track to meet the state's goal, but only by one percentage point. If you remove licensed independent practitioners from the equation, the rate among direct employees is one point over goal. I just don't think the numbers reflected accurately. A sharp facility in Cornetto was also just shy of being on track, but as spokesman says, it did a better job getting documentation from doctors this flu season and the rate went up. Paradise Valley and kindred hospitals were each at 84% but again, they had [inaudible]

Speaker 4: 03:04 and vitals are good. One 36 over 70

Speaker 2: 03:06 for Hollingsworth. The retired teacher, the risk of getting flu at his hospital is lower than others. He receives treatment at UC San Diego Health's medical center in LA Jolla, which is tied for second highest rate in the state, but his wife, Maryanne worries for patients where more employees may use their right to refuse the vaccine.

Speaker 4: 03:25 I respect that, but I also expect them to be concerned and respect our rights to not be exposed to something that could prove fatal.

Speaker 2: 03:35 All of the San Diego hospital's not on track to reach goal allow personal belief exemptions, but so do many of the state's highest performers. Still County public health officer, dr Wilma Wootton says she wasn't aware of local hospitals were permitting it. We reached her on video chat,

Speaker 5: 03:50 so that's something we need to explore and determine why that is.

Speaker 2: 03:54 But she says the County only requires employees to get a vaccine or wear a mask. So hospitals are free to enforce that. How they choose and there aren't any penalties if a facility doesn't meet the state's goal. We are not telling people how to implement that policy at the Hollingsworth home. The policy is get your flu shot or please stay away. He and wife Maryann asked their 26 year old son to get it before coming home for Christmas,

Speaker 6: 04:17 and when his son's bandmates stayed at the house for a recent show at the Casbah, he asked them to come back to Alan's where it said he knew going to the nightclub was risky, but he couldn't miss his son show. Taryn mental KPBS news.

Speaker 2: 04:33 Joining me is KPBS health reporter Taryn Manto. Taryn, welcome. Thank you. What are the possible reasons that some hospital workers are not getting flu shots? That is a very good question. And from the report, we don't know if it's a personal reason or a medical reason, but I did ask the Sandy County public health officer, dr Wilma Wooten, uh, about this, and this is what she had to say.

Speaker 5: 04:56 People are people first before they are nurses or our physicians or healthcare personnel. And you'd be surprised to know about some of the belief systems of people that are in healthcare. And so it is just our job to continue to sweet, educate.

Speaker 2: 05:13 Well, that's all well and good, but California school children are not allowed to get personal belief exemptions from getting vaccinated. Why does this exemption still exist for hospital staff? You're right. And that's why a lot of people probably are paying attention to him when he say the word personal belief. They remembered the debate over legislation. It was introduced to, to remove that option for, for kids. Um, but school children we should say are not required to get the flu vaccine. Um, so that is a little bit different. Um, but why does it exist? That's, you know, I've talked to a couple people, they say that's a very good question and it's up to hospitals to determine what is the best for their healthcare workers and for the flu vaccine to give them the option to do it. Uh, but with other immunizations, you know, hepatitis and Anne measles, most institutions have a policy where, you know, it's a condition of higher, that's an issue of workplace safety.

Speaker 2: 06:05 You know, under Cal OSHA, occupational safety and health administration, they have to protect their workers from some of the things they might be exposed to. In a hospital so that having that policy in place is more of a kind of workplace safety, but there isn't state requirements that forces people to get mandatory vaccinations for anything. It's really up to the PO. The hospital policy is their only way of knowing how many doctors, nurses and hospital staff members have actually come down with the flu this year. I actually asked about this when I was at Rady children's hospital speaking with Megan Medina. She manages infection control. I'm at the hospital and they have one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. They actually the highest and I asked her, you know when you find that someone is sick or that a patient gets the flu, do you do an investigation?

Speaker 2: 06:53 And she said yes, absolutely, but it's really difficult to get back to the actual person that may have caused this and the County themselves, they do investigations but only in cases of outbreaks. So I'm in again, it's really difficult to go back to the individual person that may be had brought in the flu and given it to a patient. Now, one of the doctors you spoke with indicated that not meeting the state vaccination goal, maybe do more to poor record keeping than actual unvaccinated staff. Tell us more about that. So right, I was speaking with Dr. Craig Waco at Scripps health and he was explaining that doctors under a state law are not direct employees of a hospital. They're licensed independent practitioner. So they are independent. So when it comes to a hospital's policy, they may be treating patients at a bunch of different facilities and then therefore they may give their proof of vaccination to one facility where they may be spend the most amount of their time, but not realizing that they need to give proof of documentation to other facilities where they may have just stepped in for one day during a flu season. So that's kind of where it becomes an issue of getting documentation and not necessarily an issue of getting vaccination. And some of the hospitals say hospital staff can either get vaccinated or wear a mask is a mask as effective as a shot. Right. So I specifically asked this of Dr. Craig Waco, cause the County requires a vaccination or a mask. And so this is what dr Waco had to say. The fluids

Speaker 7: 08:25 pass by droplets. So it should be effective. Now. Um, it probably needs to be changed too. You can't wear one for hours on end. Um, but as long as they're going in using, you know, appropriate precautions, washing their hands and then wearing the mask. But you know, the other thing is if they're sick, they're hopefully not working.

Speaker 2: 08:45 I will say though that public health officials do say that the flu shot is the best tool to prevent the spread of flu. Um, but we do know that its efficacy varies year by year. Um, but so the, the mask, as long as they're being, you know, careful could, could really help with preventing the spread of flu, what it makes sense for patients to ask their doctors or nurses if they've gotten the flu shot. That is what the state wants you to do. They're putting this information out there so you can be informed about what your hospital's vaccination rate is, and you can possibly choose to go to one where one is higher, if that's something that you're interested in, but that you have the information. So you can ask your doctor or your hospital staff and say, Hey, why aren't you improving your vaccination rates? So yes, that is what the reports intended to, to drive you to do. I've been speaking with KPBS health reporter Taryn mento. Taryn, thank you a lot. Thank you.

A KPBS review of state records shows more than 100,000 California hospital employees who help care for the sick are not receiving a vaccine against a common illness.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.