CHRISTIANA – It’s a fear that everyone has had at one point in their life – the chills set in, your body is getting achy and mind a bit cloudy – you may have caught a cold, or worse yet, the flu.
For managers, the concern about an employee getting sick, much less with the flu, can send shivers down the spine. One sick employee can suddenly become a handful or more, damaging productivity and endangering the ability to make deadlines.
In fact, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,the annual direct costs, including medical visits and medications, of influenza in the U.S. are an estimated $4.6 billion. The flu causes American employees to miss about 17 million workdays annually, at an estimated cost of $7 billion in sick days and lost productivity.
For ChristianaCare, however, that workforce concern is compounded by the fact that the work it does literally saves lives. Employees not being at work can put others at risk.
Dr. Marci Drees, chief infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare, is tasked with the challenge of convincing staff members to get an annual flu vaccination.
She recently got to see the fruits of her labors as thousands of employees, volunteers and retirees participated in ChristianaCare’s second annual #HitMeWithYourFluShot event, which added a drive-thru option this year, where participants could get the flu vaccine while sitting in their car.
“That gave a convenient option for those who weren’t working that day, and some even stopped by with the kids in the car as they were out running errands,” Drees said.
Over 18 hours on Oct. 10, more than 8,000 people were vaccinated including about two-thirds of ChristianaCare’s roughly 12,000 employees, officials reported.
Contrary to what some may believe, ChristianaCare doesn’t require its employees to be vaccinated, but it does emphasize the importance, she said. Employees may get the vaccine at a Christiana site or elsewhere, or they can decline to participate in writing.
“It’s really been a journey over the past six to eight years,” she said, noting that attention to vaccinations spiked during the 2009 flu pandemic, which required two different vaccines that season to combat the H1N1 strain. “We saw an increase to 75% participation that year, whereas before we may have had 60% or so. The next year, however, we dropped back down to our typical participation rate.”
In subsequent years, ChristianaCare’s team began coordinating efforts to better track employee vaccination participation and increase the vaccine’s availability.
In 2012, an electronic tracking system was put into place in order to improve the health system’s data on vaccination rates and also drill down on reasons why some chose not to participate, Drees said.
“We also came up with a hang tag to go on an employee’s ID badge after they were vaccinated, creating a degree of peer pressure to also get vaccinated,” she added.
To further boost participation rates, ChristianaCare made high overall vaccination rates one pathway to financial reward for employees. While that still allowed some employees to abstain for personal reasons, it also created yet another powerful incentive to get the vaccination, Drees said.
While ChristianaCare was doing more to emphasize the importance of flu vaccination and incentivize it, one more problem still had to be overcome: access.
Within the past decade, employees who wanted to get the vaccine on site had to visit an Employee Health Office on one of the health system’s campuses. With the Christiana campus spanning about half a mile, it was often an inconvenient method for many of the system’s employees in a busy workplace, Drees said.
“You quite literally had to go searching for the vaccine even though you worked at a hospital,” Drees recalled.
So about three years ago, ChristianaCare began bringing voluntary inoculation sites to employees at all of its offices and campuses. Over the course of about three weeks in October, officials were able to vaccinate more than 90% of its workforce through the campaign.
Looking to take it a step farther in 2018, ChristianaCare officials read about other hospital systems that were taking a page from the playbook of disaster response in setting up temporary mass inoculation sites. The purpose of the program was twofold: it continued a high percentage of participation while also serving as a drill for a disaster response scenario.
“We aspired through this exercise to glean critical information and data on what resources would be required for a major incident, such as a bioterrorism attack,” said Ed Durst, ChristianaCare coordinator for emergency management, after the 2018 campaign. “It was an opportunity for us to use our resources wisely and effectively, and demonstrate our commitment to being curious and to continuously look for ways to innovate.”
One vaccination site was set up at Wilmington Hospital and two were positioned at Christiana Hospital, while a roving team visited the dozens of satellite and affiliated offices.
Last year’s inaugural one-day #HitMeWithYourFluShot event resulted in more than 7,800 people getting the vaccine, Drees said. By the end of its vaccination campaign, 94% of employees were vaccinated in 2018 and she expected to achieve similar results this year.
Drees noted that every company should heed the importance of flu vaccinations, which can safeguard a workforce and its productivity.
“The thing about flu vaccination is that you’re taking it to protect yourself, but also everyone around you,” she said, explaining that so-called herd immunity will slow the spread of influenza. “Even in non-medical settings, leadership emphasizing the value of vaccination is important.”
For those wondering how to boost their employees’ vaccination rate, Drees recommended starting by leading by example.
“For example, a lot of our top leaders from the CEO on down are a part of a media campaign, being shown getting the vaccine,” she said, noting that image shows employees that it’s a priority for their leadership. “I would also try to understand why an employee may not be getting the vaccination, because some may find it inconvenient and others may worry about side effects. Remedies for each case may be different.”