TAMPA -- Vaccination stations at the elevators and parking garage were less-than-subtle reminders to workers coming and going from the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center campus that it was time to get ready for flu season.
For three weeks, these strategically placed mini-clinics made it easy for the hospital's 4,200 employees to stop and get a flu shot. No vaccination? Prepare to wear a surgical mask at work throughout the entire season.
Moffitt's policy that employees protect themselves and patients from flu exposure has worked far better than asking nicely for volunteers, said Michelle Talka, Moffitt's director of human resource operations. Nearly 92 percent have complied with the policy, now in its second year.
"We tried incentives and bribes and convenience but could never get enough," she said of previous efforts that couldn't get participation to jump above roughly 60 percent.
Though it may not be directly tied to new federal vaccination reporting rules that start Jan. 1, more hospitals nationwide are requiring clinicians, office workers and volunteers to get flu shots. Some go so far as to make objectors wear surgical masks or dangle a deduction on employee insurance premiums as an incentive.
Even those local hospitals that don't mandate flu shots, such as Florida Hospitals, HCA Hospitals and the BayCare Health System, "strongly encourage" employee participation.
"Anything we can do to prevent the disease is good," said Bruce Flareau, president of BayCare Physician Partners. BayCare, an 11-hospital network with more than 20,000 employees, held 50 free vaccination clinics this fall. Participation jumped 7 percent this year, to 50 percent.
Across the United States, health care professionals working with and near the sick are more likely to want to prevent flu, show statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Far more health care workers, 62.9 percent, have been vaccinated this year compared to the general public, 41.8 percent.
The frailty of hospital patients is a reason why the CDC this year is highlighting how many health care professionals get flu shots. Officials say the preventable disease can spread quickly in health care settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and doctor's offices.
A CDC report released this month shows that hospitals have the highest overall employee participation, at 83.4 percent. More than 65 percent of ambulatory center and physician office workers get them, while nearly 49 percent of workers at nursing homes receive flu shots, the report said.
"You're also protecting someone who can't get vaccinated," said Dan Jernigan, deputy influenza division director at the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease.
That's the idea behind the policies at Moffitt and Tampa General Hospital, which this year also made the flu vaccine mandatory. Talka said immune systems are compromised for cancer patients, especially those who get bone marrow transplants.
"Given where our population is, flu is substantially serious for them," she said of the hospital with 4,200 employees.
At Moffitt, employees don't have to say why they choose to not get vaccinated, but common exemptions include religious reasons or an aversion to needles. A supervisor simply gives objectors a surgical mask to wear at work. That includes office workers.
"Even though they don't treat patients, they interact with patients in the general population areas," Talka said. "They eat in the same cafeteria."
Tampa General, which includes a major organ transplant center, reports that 95 percent of its 6,089 employees have been vaccinated this year. Of the 250 who have declined, 140 are on medical, military or family leave.
Participation there includes a financial incentive. Employees with Tampa General insurance get a $130 deduction in their health premiums for getting a flu vaccine, spokesman John Dunn said.
BayCare's Flareau said it's important to understand and not penalize the people who don't get flu shots. Cost, convenience, even a phobia about needles can be addressed. Common misconceptions about the vaccine, including the idea that it contains a live virus that can make you sick, are starting to fade.
"You peel these issues back and most people begin to understand," he said.
Acceptance about vaccination is reflected in increased participation rates at hospitals that don't have a mandate, such as the 16-area HCA hospitals. Participation there ranges from 75 percent to 93 percent, said Linda Lemon-Steiner, vice president for quality and clinical operations for the HCA West Florida division.
Moffitt's Talka adds that no one has filed a complaint about the vaccination policy, or cited it as a reason for quitting. Employees understand there's a bigger issue involved.
"It's as much for patients as it is their own health," she said. ___