Close up woman wearing mask getting vaccinated.

A new study suggests the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services should require home healthcare workers to be vaccinated against influenza, just like it did for COVID-19. 

The study published Thursday in the American Journal of Infection Control found that home health agencies with policies requiring flu vaccinations had higher vaccination rates and saw an 11.25% reduction in home healthcare patients hospitalized for respiratory infections than agencies with low vaccination rates.

“More than 80% of our home health patients have more than three chronic conditions and 40% have more than five chronic conditions,” study co-author Jingjing Shang, M.D., from Columbia University’s College of Nursing’s Center for Health Policy told McKnight’s Home Care Daily Pulse. “They are really fragile and very vulnerable to complications from the flu.”

Shang and her colleagues analyzed data of more than 156,400 patients from 460 home health agencies from October 2017 to March 2018. They found only 26% of home health agencies had policies requiring flu vaccinations. Approximately 75% of home health workers from agencies surveyed overall had gotten flu shots. Vaccination rates were highest among workers at non-profit home health agencies, than for-profit firms.

Although the survey did not question home health workers about why they did or didn’t get the flu vaccine, Shang said previous surveys of other healthcare workers about flu shots provided insight.

“They believed they would never get sick and the vaccination would not protect them,” Shang explained. “They also didn’t think the pharmaceutical companies should charge for the vaccination.” 

Influenza sickens between 30 and 40 million Americans annually and is especially dangerous to older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospitalization from the flu is 2 to 6 times greater for people over the age of 85 than seniors between the ages of 65 and 74.

Still, mandating vaccinations proved to be difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. CMS’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate for 20 million healthcare workers – including those working in home health – faced legal challenges late last year, but was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Shang encouraged all stakeholders in home healthcare to do a much better job educating workers on the benefits of the flu vaccine.

“These policymakers really need to get the message out,” Shang said.