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HEALTH CARE STAFF: VACCINATE THYSELF

Bay area hospitals urge employees to get flu vaccines to protect themselves and the public.

They spread the message that the public should get the flu shot, but health care workers usually don't follow their own advice.

Every year, fewer than half of them get vaccinated, despite a government recommendation that puts them near the top of the list.

That could change this year, with the arrival of the H1N1 swine flu virus and a new vaccine for it. Hospitals here and nationally are stepping up efforts to vaccinate workers against both seasonal flu and H1N1. One state - New York - is even making flu vaccinations mandatory for health care workers.

Tampa General Hospital held an employee flu vaccine kickoff event Wednesday, offering free seasonal flu vaccines to workers. All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, which touts a 77 percent employee vaccination rate, plans a similar event later this month. Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg wants all its workers vaccinated and is asking employees to wear masks at work if they choose not to get the shot.

Joann Shea, director of employee health services at Tampa General, said she hopes hospital employees take notice of the widespread cases of swine flu - especially the pregnant women who have died from the virus - and say, "Wow, it's important to get your flu shot."

Seasonal flu shots are available each fall, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that certain high-risk groups be vaccinated. Those include children, people 50 and older, those who are pregnant or have certain chronic medical conditions and those who live with or care for high-risk people.

The H1N1 vaccine priority list differs slightly, but health care workers are on that list, too.

Flu shots have been a tough sell to health care workers for years, with a national vaccination rate of 42 percent. But the addition of the H1N1 virus has brought the topic more attention than ever. And workers' reluctance could lead the public to question why they should be vaccinated when a majority of those who work in the medical community aren't.

Their reasons for avoiding the needle are similar to those expressed by the public, said Dr. Juan Dumois, director of the pediatric infectious disease program at All Children's Hospital.

The most common reasons:

- I never get the flu.

- I don't like shots.

- It's not convenient.

- The vaccine gave me the flu. (Scientists say that's not true).

With that in mind, area hospitals have worked to make vaccination more convenient for employees. Only the seasonal shot is available so far, but when the swine flu vaccine comes out later this fall, they plan similar efforts.

At All Children's, workers spent two days this month vaccinating about 500 employees who have regular direct contact with patients, said Linda Ruckman, director of employee health services. The hospital will hold a flu vaccine day on Sept. 30, where officials hope a good chunk of their 2,600 employees show up.

At Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, employees are strongly encouraged to receive the flu vaccine, which is free for them, said Natalie O'Brien, infection control coordinator. Those who choose not to will be provided masks and strongly encouraged to wear them during flu season, for their safety and the safety of patients, hospital spokeswoman Gina Stiles added.

Tampa General's vaccine event Wednesday drew hundreds of employees, volunteers and vendors. Participants were given lollipops, Tylenol and a sticker that proclaimed, "I joined the TGH VacciNation."

Such efforts have been key in increasing the employee flu vaccination rate at TGH, which has gone from 27 percent in 2003 to 59 percent last year, Shea said.

Both Shea and Ruckman said their hospitals considered making flu vaccinations mandatory but decided against it.

Ruckman said All Children's already has a vaccination rate approaching 80 percent. And she isn't sure how much higher that could go, when you factor in that some employees have conditions that prevent them from receiving the vaccine, such as a being allergic to eggs or having a severe reaction to the vaccine.

Shea also noted that requiring vaccination can create a "very difficult environment for employees." Indeed, the New York requirement drew immediate protest from that state's largest health care union.

Instead, Tampa General decided to set a goal of 65 percent this year. "If we can do that, it's the right path," Shea said.

All agree that the main goal in their employee vaccination efforts is protecting patients.

Among the hundreds at the TGH event Wednesday was nurse Karla Alvarez, who started working at the hospital in April.

Alvarez, 23, who is from Peru, had never received a flu shot. But considering she works in the employee health department, she said getting one this year was a no-brainer.

"If I'm going to encourage others to get a flu shot, I need to be one of them," she said.

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330

FAST FACTS

Flu vaccine availability

Seasonal flu vaccine: Available now at health care providers and drugstores.

H1N1 flu vaccine: Vaccinations are expected to start next month. Among the groups with first priority: children and young people through age 24, people caring for infants under 6 months, pregnant women, health care workers and people aged 25-64 with health conditions that put them at high risk of flu complications.

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