American Medical News
Posted Jan. 28, 2013
The 2012-13 influenza season in the U.S. is turning out to be particularly rough. Public health experts have not yet determined whether the H3N2 virus is causing a historically virulent outbreak, nor have they determined if the worst is over. But a recent flood of very sick patients showing up at hospitals has prompted some states and major cities to declare flu emergencies.
American Medical News regularly covers the flu issue, with a particular focus on how physicians and health workers can aid the nation’s preparedness — and set a good example for patients — by getting vaccinated early. This season doctors appear on track to achieve record immunization rates, so the public health message is clearly getting through. Flu preparedness, however, has seen challenges beyond a virus strain that has struck particularly early and forcefully. Mandated flu shots for health workers have run into legal trouble in one state, and budget cuts have raised concerns that U.S. preparedness efforts for all types of health emergencies is in danger of stalling.
Numerous hospitals and health systems have started requiring workers to get flu shots, but so far only Rhode Island has mandated vaccination statewide for health workers with direct patient contact. Now an employee union is suing, saying the state health department cannot violate due process rights by forcing workers to receive medicine that the union says has not been proven to protect patients. The lawsuit also contends that the mandated alternative to flu shots — wearing surgical masks when in contact with patients — makes for intolerable working conditions and interferes with patient communication.
A report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation warns that states are in danger of regressing on the significant improvements they have made in the past decade toward bolstering health care preparedness. States rated slightly lower in 2012 than they did in 2010 on measures of readiness for such emergencies as flu pandemics, foodborne illness outbreaks and chemical attacks. The culprits identified in the study are budget cuts and the work force reductions that go along with them.
Years of campaigns aimed at getting doctors and other health professionals to get vaccinated against the flu appear to be paying off. As of mid-November 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 84% of physicians had been immunized, well on the way to the CDC’s target of a 90% vaccination rate. More work still is needed, however, with less than half of medical assistants and aides getting the shots by the same date. Long-term-care facilities also don’t have nearly the same vaccination rates as hospitals.