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Flu season peaking, but many hospital workers aren't immunized

Mid-February usually is peak flu season in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and this year is no exception. State and federal health officials say symptoms are widespread.

Mid-February usually is peak flu season in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and this year is no exception. State and federal health officials say symptoms are widespread.

If you're feeling lousy and regret not getting your flu shot, you're in good company - fewer than half of American adults get their annual vaccine.

That's generally not the case for people who work in hospitals, where flu shots are considered especially important to protect medically fragile patients.

In the Philadelphia region, where many hospitals have mandated the vaccine, the average topped 86 percent in the 2014-15 flu season, the most recent year for which federal data are available. Several institutions - Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Abington Memorial, and Lansdale Hospital - reported that nearly all of their workers were immunized. The hospitals made rare exceptions for medical and religious reasons.

At some suburban hospitals, however, plenty of workers are dodging the needle.

In South Jersey, just 54 percent of employees at the Inspira Medical Center campuses in Vineland and Elmer were immunized.

At Pottstown Memorial Medical Center, just 47 percent of workers were vaccinated - the same rate as Pennsylvania's overall population.

"It's inexcusable," said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. "Health-care workers absolutely have a moral duty to get vaccinated. The duty comes from their need to do no harm."

Influenza is highly contagious and can cause severe complications in hospital patients. The virus can trigger secondary bacterial infections, threatening the lives of those with weakened immune systems or suffering chronic illnesses such as cancer. It also can be especially dangerous to pregnant women.

A spokeswoman for Pottstown Memorial, Debra Bennis, said the hospital offers free flu vaccinations to all employees, volunteers, and physicians.

"Although being vaccinated is each individual's choice, we strongly encourage staff to participate to protect themselves and others," Bennis said.

At Inspira, the administration "periodically evaluates" whether to require the staff to receive the vaccine, said Paul Lambrecht, vice president of quality and patient safety.

"While we have not yet decided to make it mandatory, our results indicate we could do a better job of communicating how this vaccine can protect the employee, their families, and our patients," Lambrecht said.

Other regional hospitals with low employee vaccination rates during the 2014-15 flu season included Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, N.J., and Mercy Suburban Hospital in Norristown (61 percent); Inspira's Woodbury campus; Memorial Hospital of Salem County; Valley Forge Medical Center; and the Philadelphia campus of Cancer Treatment Centers of America (62 percent).

Though the flu season has been relatively mild this year, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health warns, "We could still see a surge."

"Influenza activity is increasing across the country, and the CDC has received reports of severe influenza illness," spokeswoman Amy Worden said.

"As long as flu viruses are circulating in the community, it's not too late to get vaccinated."

For a complete list of regional hospitals and their employee flu vaccination rate see