Jan. 4 (UPI) — States with laws mandating flu shots for hospital workers saw reductions in deaths from influenza and pneumonia annually across their populations, a study published Friday by the Annals of Internal Medicine found.
During the 2016-17 season alone, researchers estimate that nearly 2,000 deaths were averted in the 15 U.S. states that had implemented mandatory vaccination laws at that time, the data showed.
The findings suggest that health-worker vaccination laws may be a good way to protect the country’s most vulnerable populations.
This includes the elderly and those who are chronically ill, as they are at increased risk for exposure to these viruses when visiting healthcare facilities, according to the researchers.
It’s possible that similar benefits could also be seen with mandatory COVID-19 vaccination of hospital workers, they said.
“Our findings are consistent with the idea that hospital workers serve as vectors of disease transmission in the community, and that influenza vaccination of hospital workers reduces disease transmission and related mortality,” study co-author Emily C. Lawler told UPI.
“The elderly are extremely vulnerable to influenza and are also generally less responsive to the vaccine [but] evidence suggests that vaccinating hospital workers against influenza reduces influenza disease transmission and protects [them],” said Lawler, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia.
Annual flu vaccination is a key defense against infection that prevents up to 50% of new cases, but the shots can be less effective in elderly adults and chronically ill persons who are at the greatest risk, according to Lawler.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recommended vaccinating healthcare workers against the seasonal virus and several states passed laws requiring that hospitals provide the shots on-site for their employees, she said.
For this study, Lawler and her colleagues from the University of Georgia, Montana State University and Monash University in Australia estimated annual flu and pneumonia death rates across all 50 states over a 20-year period.
They compared death rates in states that had enacted hospital worker vaccination laws — looking at data from years before and after the legislation was implemented — to those without them.
Implementation of a state vaccination law was associated with a 2.5% reduction in monthly pneumonia and influenza mortality rates during the years when the vaccine was well matched to the circulating strains, the researchers said.
The largest reductions were seen among elderly persons and during peak influenza months, in the winter.
Lawler said that if the COVID-19 vaccine is similarly effective at reducing a person’s ability to spread the disease — which “still remains an unknown” — it could be reasonable to vaccinating hospital workers “would also similarly serve to reduce disease transmission and mortality in the broader community.”
She cautioned, however, that the studies findings are specific to people in health care who work with patients.
“Our work focuses only on health care workers, who are disproportionately in contact with populations that are particularly vulnerable to influenza, so it would be difficult to extrapolate our findings to other occupation groups,” she said.