CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Conway Medical Center had been among the lowest ranking medical facilities in the state for the amount of its employees who were vaccinated against the seasonal flu.
Now, it should be jumping to near the top.
The hospital, which previously made the vaccine optional, has now mandated it for all employees, volunteers and students who are at the hospital on a regular basis.
Since then, it’s seen its vaccination rate jump from 67% for the 2018-19 flu season, to 97% this year.
“I think this was a very good move,” said Allyson Floyd, a spokeswoman for the hospital. “Our leadership team recognized that this was an important change to make for our staff, as well as our community. We care for our community, we care about our community, and protecting them and these vaccines are so important in the fight against the viruses.”
Vaccination rates among medical facilities vary statewide. Hospitals are not required under law to require vaccinations, and policies vary from facility to facility.
There is a correlation between patient risk and a hospital’s vaccination rate, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s annual report on flu vaccinations in medical facilities.
The facilities are required by law to report their vaccination rates to the state. South Carolina’s number has trended above the national rate over the last few years, with 90.76% of those in facilities vaccinated during the 2018-19 flu season, compared to a national vaccination rate of 81.1%.
The state’s rate includes employees, licensed independent practitioners, adult students, trainees and volunteers. Rates varies by group, with 93.71% of medical employees vaccinated statewide, and 75.25% of licensed independent practitioners vaccinated, according to data from the 2018-19 report.
The 2019-20 report is not yet available.
Health care employees are not required to be vaccinated under state law.
During the 2018-19 flu season, 39.39% of facilities didn’t have vaccination as a condition for credentialing or employment. About 28.8% required employees to be vaccinated against the seasonal flu in order to be employed and credentialed. Another 18.18% of facilities had it as a condition of employment only, and 13.64% had it as a condition of credentialing only.
Facilities that required vaccination had an average vaccination rate of 96%, while those that didn’t require it had an average rate of 88%.
Statewide, the vaccination rate in medical facilities increased by 12.18% between the 2012-13 and the 2018-19 flu seasons.
Vaccination rates for hospitals in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand areas varied between Conway Medical Center, at 67%, and Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center, at 97%. Conway Medical Center had the second-lowest rate in South Carolina during the 2018-19 flu season.
DHEC did not respond to a request for an interview.
Conway Medical Center’s 67% vaccination rate in 2018-18 was a slight rise from the previous season’s 65% vaccination rate.
Those numbers may have been higher, Floyd said, because employees who work in outpatient clinics and offices located outside the main hospital building in Conway may have gotten their vaccinations at pharmacies instead of the employee vaccination clinic, and therefore may not have been counted and included in the rate.
Of the remaining 3% of its employees who haven’t received the vaccination this season, Floyd said 2% have shown supportive documentation stating it is for a health or religious reason, and that the remaining 1% are employees who have a vaccination pending because they are on medical leave.
She said the hospital had discussed making the change for a while.
“It was strongly encouraged every other year,” she said.
The hospital holds annual flu vaccine clinics. Floyd said it’s been especially important to get the shot this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is also a deadly disease, and we have had patients who have come in with both at the same time, and they are extremely sick,” she said.
Vaccine clinics were available for every shift. Employees could also provide documentation if they receive the shot elsewhere.
The hospital, like many medical facilities, has not required employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine this year.
Reaching high rates
Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center in Hartsville had the highest vaccination rate during the 2018-19 flu season in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand areas, with 97% vaccinated.
The vaccine became mandatory for every employee, contract staff and provider about three years ago, according to Tanya Baker, the hospital’s director of infection control and employee health. Prior to the change, Baker said about 90% of employees received it.
She said the policy was put into place to keep employees, patients and visitors safe.
“What we don’t want to do is have patients come into the hospital for one thing and leave with influenza because maybe someone had influenza and didn’t know it,” she said.
It’s especially important for those in a hospital setting to get vaccinated, she said, because providers are in close contact with patients — who are more at risk due to the conditions that placed them in the facility — and could pass the virus on to multiple people through the day.
Baker would often hear from employees who didn’t get one that they hadn’t because they’d never received the shot, or that they heard it gave them the flu. The shot does not contain the live virus and cannot give someone the flu.
The hospital responded with an increased education efforts, which included hanging flyers in break rooms and posting on its closed Facebook page.
The hospital started placing an increased emphasis on the flu vaccine before the season began this fall due to the ongoing pandemic.
“It was just uncharted territory for us as health care providers,” she said. “They were willing and ready to get the influenza vaccine when we had it available.”
It is not requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.