Hospitals Crack Down on Workers Refusing Flu Shots

CHICAGO (AP) -

Patients can refuse a flu shot. Should doctors and nurses have that right, too? That is the thorny question surfacing as U.S. hospitals increasingly crack down on employees who won’t get flu shots, with some workers losing their jobs over their refusal.

“Where does it say that I am no longer a patient if I’m a nurse?” wondered Carrie Calhoun, a long-time critical care nurse in suburban Chicago who was fired last month after she refused a flu shot.

Hospitals’ get-tougher measures coincide with an earlier-than-usual flu season hitting harder than in recent mild seasons. Flu is widespread in most states, and at least 20 children have died.

Most doctors and nurses do get flu shots. But in the past two months, at least 15 nurses and other hospital staffers in four states have been fired for refusing, and several others have resigned, according to affected workers, hospital authorities and published reports.

In Rhode Island, one of three states with tough penalties behind a mandatory vaccine policy for health care workers, more than 1,000 workers recently signed a petition opposing the policy, according to a labor union that has filed suit to end the regulation.

Why would people whose job is to protect sick patients refuse a flu shot? The reasons vary: allergies to flu vaccine, which are rare; religious objections; and skepticism about whether vaccinating health workers will prevent flu in patients.

For some people, flu causes only mild symptoms. But it can also lead to pneumonia, and there are thousands of hospitalizations and deaths each year. The number of deaths has varied in recent decades from about 3,000 to 49,000.

A survey by CDC researchers found that in 2011, more than 400 U.S. hospitals required flu vaccinations for their employees and 29 hospitals fired unvaccinated employees.

According to the most recent federal data, about 63 percent of U.S. health care workers had flu shots as of November. That’s up from previous years, but the government wants 90 percent coverage of health care workers by 2020.

The highest rate, about 88 percent, was among pharmacists, followed by doctors at 84 percent, and nurses, 82 percent. Fewer than half of nursing assistants and aides are vaccinated, Bridges said.