AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Wednesday it has proposed a rule change to make the seasonal influenza vaccine part of the immunizations required for health care workers, to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic and further reduce the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Maine already requires employees of designated health care facilities to show proof of immunization or documented immunity to several diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and hepatitis B, unless they have a medical exemption, outlined a news release.
The proposed rule change would add influenza (flu) to this list to reduce the risk of flu among health care workers and the potential spread of flu to their patients as the state continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Immunization against the flu and other diseases with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 also allows health care providers to rule out those vaccine-preventable illnesses when patients experience symptoms, potentially speeding diagnosis of COVID-19, the release stated.
“Immunization is the best way to ensure that health care workers, their patients, and their families are protected against the flu,” said DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “Most health care workers get their flu shot every year, but this year it's vital that even more get vaccinated to keep Maine people healthy and avoid stressing the health care system.”
“Getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever, with flu viruses circulating in Maine and across the country alongside the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “The flu shot is a well-studied and effective tool that we can all use now to protect our health through the winter.”
During the 2019-20 flu season, just over 80 percent of health care personnel nationally reported having received an influenza vaccination, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC). Vaccination rates were significantly higher among personnel who worked for health care employers that required vaccination.
Influenza vaccination is recommended each year for anyone six months of age and older.
Vaccination can reduce a person's risk of contracting the illness, minimize the need for any subsequent doctors' visits, and lessen the chance of missed work and school due to influenza, the release noted. The influenza vaccine can also reduce the severity of the illness, should a vaccinated person contract influenza. Studies show that the influenza vaccine saves children's lives, prevents serious events associated with chronic lung disease, diabetes, and heart disease, and prevents influenza-related hospitalization among working-age and older adults.
Maine is already reporting cases of the flu this season. Last flu season, Maine recorded more than 10,000 cases of flu, a likely undercount because health care providers are not required to report the illness.
Flu vaccine for the 2020-2021 season is now widely available. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for it to take full effect. To find a flu clinic, visit cdc.gov/flu or search the listings on 211maine.org.
Health care facilities designated under the immunization rule include hospitals, home health agencies, and licensed nursing, residential care, intermediate care, and multi-level health care facilities.
As part of the proposed rule change, Maine DHHS also seeks to clarify that during public health emergencies declared by the Governor, the Department may require vaccinations and exclude individuals from the workplace, if these measures are necessary to protect public health to limit the spread of certain infectious diseases. Medical exemptions as authorized by law must be documented.
Public comments on the proposed rule changes will be accepted through 5 p.m. on Friday, October 30 and may be submitted by email to email@example.com.