About 50 employees of Essentia Health, an upper-Midwest hospital chain, didn’t go to work Wednesday.
But it wasn’t an early start to the Thanksgiving holiday for them. They were fired for refusing to get flu shots.
It’s part of a growing trend for hospitals to require flu shots for workers. Public health experts say it shouldn’t be surprising.
“It’s a patient safety issue,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “It’s so that we do not give flu to our patients.”
Hospital workers can pass the flu virus to some of the most vulnerable people — frail elderly, babies in incubators, patients with immune systems ravaged by cancer treatment. Vaccinating employees protects patients and the employees’ co-workers.
“Patients are in the hospital because they are sick,” said Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, Infectious Disease and Chief Patient Quality and Safety Officer at Essentia Health. "That puts them at risk of a more severe outcome from influenza. People can die from influenza.”
Each year, influenza virus kills between 4,000 and 50,000 Americans, including children who were perfectly healthy before they caught flu.
Just about everyone is advised to get a flu vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu vaccines for everyone of the age of 6 months who doesn’t have a medical reason not to — for instance, an allergy to the vaccine.
But vaccination rates are low, and even among healthcare workers, only around 65 percent get flu vaccines every year, the CDC says.
Requiring the vaccine gets those rates up, protects patients and causes no harm, Schaffner said.
When employers require the vaccine, the CDC found, 85 percent of workers get one. Just 43 percent get vaccinated if there is no policy.
Several states, including California, require hospitals to make flu vaccines mandatory and to record and publish their vaccination rates. Maryland has a searchable database telling people a hospital’s vaccination rate.
Minnesota doesn’t require this but Essentia said it started the mandatory policy to protect patients.
“Just like other people, we had a voluntary program really encouraging our health care personnel to get vaccinated,” Prabhu said.
“In 2012-2015 our vaccination rate among health care workers was about 70 percent.” That’s not good enough, he said. “The last flu season, we went to mandatory participation. Everyone who worked at Essentia had to say yes or no.” That got vaccination rates to 82 percent — still not good enough.
Now, Essentia employees must either be vaccinated or go through a process similar to school enrollment requirements: they must apply for a medical or religious/philosophical waiver. The requests are reviewed by expert committees.