University of Tulsa nursing student Hailey Nelson, right, prepares to give a flu vaccine to a patient at Food on the Move's drive thru grocery giveaway on the campus of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. Credit: Mike Simons | Tulsa World via AP

While a large majority of Maine health care workers get vaccinated against the flu each year, the state may soon require all of those workers to get their shots to help limit the spread of flu during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced a new proposed rule that would add influenza to the list of diseases for which workers at licensed health care facilities must be immunized.

Under current state rules, those workers are already required to present proof that they have immunity against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis B, unless they have a medical exemption.

“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,” said Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

The proposed flu vaccine requirement will now undergo public comment through Oct. 30, after which it could be finalized. A public hearing will be scheduled if at least five people request one, according to Maine DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell.

Health officials have been urging Mainers to get their flu shots as early as possible this year to prevent the health care system from being swamped with flu cases and depleting resources that may be needed to handle a surge of COVID-19 as more people spend time inside this fall and winter.

But while experts widely agree on the safety and importance of annual flu shots, not all health care workers have gotten them every year.

Just 82.5 percent of workers at Maine health care facilities got vaccinated in the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the most recently available data those facilities provided to the state. Hospitals performed the best that year, with 91.5 percent of workers getting flu shots and nursing homes coming in second with 77.8 percent.

The lowest flu shot rates that year were in workers at residential care facilities (35.8 percent), intermediate care facilities (41.7 percent), home health agencies (61.7 percent) and multi-level health care facilities (65.4 percent).

Hospitals often require that those who do not get a flu shot each year to wear face masks during the flu season, but this year, their workers have all generally been wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The proposed requirement that health care workers now get vaccinated against the flu is meant to prevent health care workers from passing influenza to their patients, at a time when a double infection of flu and COVID-19 could be disastrous. State officials have also been urging Mainers to get flu shots to limit how many people come to the hospital with symptoms that resemble COVID-19 and require the use of valuable testing and protective equipment before it can be ruled out.