For years, hospitals in the Baton Rouge area struggled to persuade workers to get the annual flu vaccine, which the federal government says is the best way to prevent the seasonal illness. But that changed in 2014.

For example, Baton Rouge General workers’ vaccination rate in 2013 was about 59 percent, around the same as other facilities in the region, but the hospital boosted that to nearly 100 percent last flu season, said Connie DeLeo, infection control coordinator at Baton Rouge General. The hospital did that by making the flu shots a condition of employment.

“We wanted to protect our patients and our community,” DeLeo said.

Nationally, flu season costs workers and employers 111 million workdays every year, or roughly $7 billion in lost productivity, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu victims spend more than 3 million days in the hospital each year and make more than 31 million visits to doctors.

DeLeo said a task force of infection control personnel from Baton Rouge General and other hospitals in Public Health Region II, which covers East and West Baton Rouge, East and West Feliciana, Ascension, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, met last year to discuss how to improve vaccination rates. Most of the hospitals had similar vaccination rates as Baton Rouge General. But Ochsner Medical Center — Baton Rouge had made the flu shots mandatory, and more than 99 percent of its employees got the vaccination.

The task force recommended doing the same.

The result? In 2014, vaccination rates at hospitals in Public Health Region II jumped to between 97 percent and 100 percent, even though some facilities didn’t make the shots mandatory, DeLeo said. A lot of people work at more than one hospital and were required to get the shots at another facility.

“It was an amazing, amazing thing,” she said.

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center went from around 50 percent participation to nearly 100 percent, according to spokeswoman Kelly Zimmerman. However, the vaccine wasn’t a condition of employment and jobs were not in jeopardy.

Employees who weren’t vaccinated were required to wear a hospital-provided mask when in direct patient contact, she said.

The most recent statewide figures, which cover the 2013-14 flu season, show 77 percent of hospital employees got flu vaccinations, according to the CDC.

DeLeo said the task force discovered that one of the main reasons hospital workers didn’t get vaccinated was because they didn’t like getting shots.

So the task force recommended that hospitals offer the flu mist, an inhalable vaccine, she said. Workers also mistakenly believed the flu shot would give them the flu.

But the viruses in the shot are dead so that can’t happen, she said. But as the body’s immune system responds, there can be side effects including achiness, soreness where the shot was given and a slight fever.

The National Nurses United, which has about 185,000 members, has protested mandatory vaccinations, saying neither the risk of the disease nor the benefit is great enough to force workers to be vaccinated.