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Oregon lags behind goal of high flu vaccination rate for health care workers

Nurses, like this critical care nurse, play a critical role in health care.
Oregon Health & Science University
Nurses, like this critical care nurse, play a critical role in health care.

A lower percentage of health care workers are vaccinated against the flu than during the 2019-20 flu season.

The Oregon Health Authority would like 90% of health care workers to be vaccinated against the flu, but the state lags far behind that goal.

The agency issued an alert last week saying that 64% of health care employees are vaccinated against the virus, compared with 85% during the 2019-20 flu season. But as the pandemic deepened and spread, and people stayed home or masked in public places, vaccination rates among health care workers plummeted, and they’ve yet to recover. Last flu season, 63% of health care workers got a flu vaccine.

The proportion of those declining a shot has grown – from 8% during the 2019-2020 flu season to 15% now, agency data shows. The health authority doesn’t know why another one-fifth of health care workers aren’t vaccinated. The state needs about 35,000 health care workers to get vaccinated to meet its 90% goal.

State health officials worry that infected health care workers could further sicken already ill people.

“Health care workers are the first line of defense in protecting vulnerable patients and preventing a severe respiratory virus season from becoming a catastrophic one,” said Rebecca Pierce, who tracks hospital infections for the agency. “That’s why influenza vaccination of health care workers is a key strategy for infection control in health care facilities.”

The state’s alert coincides with the start of the flu season. Infection rates were low during the pandemic but the virus came roaring back last year, peaking in the first part of December. Health authority spokesman Jonathan Modie expects illnesses to increase in coming weeks.

“Given (the) severity of last season and the potential for compounding effects of concurrently circulating respiratory viruses, it is important for health care workers to get up to date with vaccinations as soon as possible,” Modie said in an email.

The state collects vaccination data from hospitals, surgery centers that provide same-day care, nursing homes and dialysis centers. Vaccination rates were lowest in in-patient psychiatric facilities and dialysis centers at 35%. Nursing home rates were also low at 41%. Hospitals had the highest rate – 69% – followed by surgery centers at 67%.

Modie called the rate in nursing homes especially worrying.

“Nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable to developing flu-related complications,” Modie said. “It is critical to improve uptake in these settings.”

Health care officials also worry about COVID, which appears to be here to stay, and another respiratory virus, RSV or respiratory syncytial virus. The latter usually causes mild cold-like symptoms. Health care officials recommend that people over 60 get an RSV vaccine, and that anyone older than 6 get a COVID booster – if you can find them.

Unlike COVID, asymptomatic transmission of flu is less common, with infected people becoming the most contagious on the third and fourth day of illness. Health officials advise anyone who develops symptoms to stay home.

While most people recover from the flu in days, those with weak immune systems, including the elderly and very young, risk hospitalization and even death. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 12,000 to 50,000 people die each year from the flu and 9 million to 41 million get sick. State health officials don’t track adult deaths, but they do log pediatric figures. Two Oregon children died from the flu last season.

With the season just starting, Modie said now is a good time to get a shot to ensure protection throughout the season.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.