April 20. 2010
Exceptional Rates Boosted by Established Partnerships
The Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) may not be able to reach its goal of vaccinating 50 percent of its residents by the end of the year. But the health department has seen many local successes in terms of vaccinating school-aged children and healthcare workers.
According to Dr. Ann Lindsay, health officer with the county, about one third of the population has been vaccinated against H1N1. This is higher than the national average of one in four, as estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DHHS has also vaccinated forty percent of school-aged children.
“We targeted school kids because they were a priority group, and on the theory that kids bring home germs,” said Lindsay in a phone interview with NACCHO. “We had a good relationship with schools. I met with school superintendents and got their buy-ins early on.”
Health officials had worked closely with the county’s Office of Education on preparedness and disaster readiness initiatives in previous years. This past flu season, the onus was on schools to distribute information to parents and get consent for the immunization of young students. Humboldt county health officials deemed the school vaccination program such a success that it honored Kimberly Comet, risk manager with the Office of Education, during National Public Health Week.
“One way of correcting [low rates of vaccination among students] is to make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated,” said Lindsay. “A lot of working parents don’t otherwise have the chance to get their children vaccinated.”
Healthcare Workers at the Front of the Line
Among healthcare workers, the county had extraordinarily high rates of vaccination. Lindsay credits the good relationship between the health department and the Infection Control Committee at St. Joseph Hospital for the 76 percent vaccination rate among the county’s hospital workers. “Schools, hospitals, and pregnant women were the first to get the vaccine,” said Lindsay.
The hospital also implemented an unorthodox rule that may have boosted rates. Healthcare workers who refused to get the vaccine were urged to wear masks when on duty.
The poor rates of vaccination among those working in hospitals and other healthcare facilities was highlighted during this year's pandemic. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, mentioned the problem on Monday during a speech to the National Immunization Conference in Atlanta.
"We shouldn't have to convince health providers that vaccines are safe and that they work," said Sebelius. "But, despite the fact that we had more health providers than ever getting vaccinated last year, there was still a sizable number who did not."
Humboldt County Forges Ahead
Vaccination efforts are continuing in the county, focusing largely on gaps in immunization coverage. Officials are reaching out to seniors and low-income individuals who lack access to health insurance by setting up clinics at senior centers, homeless shelters, and social and recreational centers for youth. Additionally, any group, organization or business that can bring 20 people together will be vaccinated by a team of trained staff and volunteers.
The pandemic brought many hard-fought lessons, said Lindsay. Setting up a National Incident Management System with liaison and communications positions made officials more aware of changing situations—allowing for more responsive planning.
Most importantly, the pandemic situation showed the importance of school-based vaccinations and national advocacy to ensure funding for such public health programs. Currently, the health department does not have the funding to conduct annual flu vaccine clinics, but is working with the Health Officers Association of California on securing grants. The hope is that federal funding will aid in protecting school-aged children against future influenza outbreaks.