Flu shot a no-brainer for health care workers

Influenza is epidemic throughout the United States, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s been implicated in the deaths of at least 21 children. More people are being hospitalized for the virus than last year at this time.

When sick people are hospitalized, how safe are the health workers who care for them? In hospitals with mandatory flu vaccine policies, quite safe. Even though this year’s vaccine doesn’t provide full protection against the dominant flu strain going around, it can reduce the severity of symptoms, allowing for faster recovery.

To protect staff and patients, a growing number of hospitals are requiring employees and volunteers to be vaccinated against the flu, which is on the list of top 10 killers in the U.S. Each year flu kills about 36,000 Americans and hospitalizes 226,000.

Among those requiring the shot are the respected Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland and Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center, which has had a mandatory policy since 2005.

Now Tacoma’s MultiCare Health System is making flu vaccinations mandatory – with a few exceptions – and has gotten pushback from the union representing about 1,500 nurses. Fortunately, the attempt to fight MultiCare’s policy in court was unsuccessful. A Superior Court judge declined to issue a restraining order that would prevent MultiCare from terminating workers who refuse to be vaccinated.

Most hospitals don’t mandate vaccinations but, like CHI Franciscan Health, many require unvaccinated employees to wear a mask when in clinical areas. Johns Hopkins doesn’t think that’s good enough, noting that employees may encounter high-risk patients – including unvaccinated infants and people with compromised immune systems – in many nonclinical settings, such as elevators.

Flu can be easily transmitted before symptoms cause concern, and “studies have found that health care personnel with influenza-like symptoms work an average 2.5 days while ill,” notes Johns Hopkins on its website.

Mandatory flu shots for health care workers are supported by such groups as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American Hospital Association. It’s only logical that the very people most closely associated with patient care should receive a shot that has saved many thousands of lives in recent years. Those who disagree might be working in the wrong field.