The most recent report on flu-vaccination rates of Oregon's health care workers shows Ashland Community Hospital is lagging far behind other hospitals throughout the state.
Last flu season, 50 percent of ACH's approximately 450 employees received a flu shot, according to an October 2012 report released by the Oregon Health Authority.
Statewide, 69 percent of hospital employees were vaccinated during the 2011-12 flu season, according to the OHA report.
Ashland's vaccination rate drops much lower when volunteers or independent physicians who have credentials to work at the hospital are included.
Taking those groups into account, 34 percent of the roughly 830 people who have the authority to walk though ACH halls received a flu shot last season.
So far this year, about 60 percent of the hospital's paid employees have received a flu shot, said Chief Executive Officer Mark Marchetti. He hopes that number will climb.
"We've tried to encourage vaccinations, we've tried to better educate employees, and we've tried to make it as convenient as possible," Marchetti said. "We do require that employees sign a form declining the vaccination, but there is no way in Oregon that we can force the issue."
Oregon is the only state in the nation that prohibits employers from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, said Dr. Mel Kohn, Oregon's public health director.
It's a unique scenario that all of Oregon's health care facilities are dealing with, said Andy Van Pelt, chief operating officer for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
"We would love to see vaccination numbers higher, but state law prohibits employers from talking about mandatory vaccinations," Van Pelt said. "Our hands are really tied."
Ashland is well-known for its low rate of immunizations. In 2008, it drew national media attention because an unusually high percentage of parents sought school waivers so their children would not have to be immunized against measles, mumps and diphtheria. USA Today reported Ashland's exemption rate for mandatory school vaccinations was 28 percent, nearly 12 times the national average.
"Historically, it has been true that the Ashland area has been one of the places where rate of vaccination has been low," Kohn said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' goal is to see 70 percent of the nation's health care workers receive annual flu vaccinations by 2015, and 90 percent by 2020.
That's Oregon's goal as well, Kohn said.
"People should not have to worry when they go to see a provider that they are going to pick up the flu there," he said. "Providers who are unvaccinated are potentially spreading the flu. "… Vaccination is really the best way to protect not only yourself, but all the people around you.
"I think we really ought to address this problem of rates being as low as they are," Kohn said, adding he hopes Oregon lawmakers will pick up the issue during the next legislative session.
"It's important to patient and employee health," Marchetti said. "We try a number of different ways to raise people's education."
Providence Medford Medical Center reported 76 percent of its approximately 960 employees received an influenza vaccine last flu season, and Rogue Regional Medical Center reported 77 percent of its 2,700 employees did the same, the OHA report states.
Including hospital employees, and taking into account credentialed independent physicians and volunteers who have access to their facilities, Providence Medford and RRMC reported 2011-12 flu vaccination rates of 58 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
So far this year, about 68 percent of Providence Medford's employees have received a flu shot, with a goal of reaching 75 percent, said Julie Levison, the hospital's director of human resources.
"We highly, highly encourage it to employees. "… It's really about protecting our patients," Levison said.
This year at RRMC, "we are at 72 percent and climbing," said Debbie McQueen, operations manager for Asante Work Health.
"You are always going to have those people who do have concerns and fears about having the flu shot. "… We really do respect people's privacy and their decision," McQueen said. "Asante's leadership really does believe that everyone should be immunized. "… We really see this as an important patient-safety issue."
The vaccination rate of health care workers is becoming more visible, Kohn said, "and really it should."
In 2007, the Oregon Legislature passed a law creating a mandatory reporting program that tracks vaccination rates and infections that were acquired at health care facilities.
"I think it's especially important that providers are protecting their patients," Kohn said. "We have a flu epidemic every year. It's a serious thing."
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1976 and 2007, yearly flu-related deaths varied from a low of 3,000 during the most dormant flu season to 49,000 during the most severe.
Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.