Across Colorado, hospitals are demanding all employees get flu shots or be fired.
The choice pits the safety of sick patients who could die from a hospital-acquired case of influenza, against the rights of employees to refuse a shot.
Nationally, flu contributes to anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 deaths a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is especially dangerous to already frail hospital patients.
In Colorado, at least 20 hospital employees in Colorado have lost their jobs since the beginning of flu season It’s difficult to get an accurate count because most hospitals will not share personnel records. A Facebook page called “Colorado Healthcare Workers Against Forced Vaccination” has some 250 members, including a rehabilitation therapist, a chiropractor, a medical physicist and clerical staff. One wrote, “I was suspended, not actually fired, until the end of the ‘flu season,’ but the result is the same, no work, no paycheck.”
Still, the hospitals’ requirements this season have resulted in tens of thousands of their staffers getting flu shots, far more than in previous years.
The wave of required vaccinations was set off after the state Board of Health reported that only 60 percent of Colorado health workers had flu vaccinations. Educating health care staff about the need for flu shots has not been working, said state public health director Joni Reynolds. In February the board adopted new requirements, specifying that 60 percent of healthcare workers in the state receive flu shots by the end of this year. That requirement will rise to 90 percent by 2014.
However, many hospitals are insisting that 100 percent of their employees get the flu shot immediately. For most staffers, that means either obtaining the vaccination or getting an exemption for medical or religious reasons, and instead agreeing to wear a mask at work for months during the winter flu season at a time.
Reynolds applauded the hospitals’ efforts.
“Our goal is to protect the most vulnerable – the sickest adults, the seniors, the children, the ones who have chronic health conditions,” she said. “That puts them at significant risk if they were to have influenza.”
At Craig Hospital in Denver, a 20-person infection control committee approved the flu shot rule unanimously. As the rehab hospital’s clientele are recovering from brain and spinal cord injuries, they are “especially vulnerable,” the hospital explained in an email. Nine of Craig’s employees resigned or were terminated as a result of the rule, the hospital said.
Frances Ray-Dise says she was one of the nine. She was a unit secretary and refused the vaccine because she believes it contains harmful substances. She also thinks that drug companies’ desires for profits are driving the campaign for flu shots. Ray-Dise said she tried wearing a mask at work, but it interfered with her ability to speak clearly.
Ray-Dise said she was fired in October, reinstated and told she could request an exemption based on religious beliefs, and then fired again for not wearing a mask. She said she knows a dozen other people who were unhappy about the rules but complied. “One person in particular was crying, ‘What am I going to do? I cannot lose this job!’” Ray-Dise said. “She did it absolutely and completely under duress because she felt she had no options.”
“They love their work, they love their jobs. And truly, they are up against the wall and feel they have no choice in the matter. What happened to freedom of choice? What happened to informed consent?”
Ray-Dise is not alone. The University of Colorado Hospital system, which includes Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, says two employees have resigned and two have been fired, out of 15,000.
University Hospital spokesman Dan Weaver explained that they have already seen 12 patients seriously ill with flu this season. “We are taking a firm stance on this issue because it is important for the safety of our patients,” he said.
Through the opponents’ group Facebook page, Colorado Public News found more health workers from various health facilities who had lost their jobs.
Nancy Markow, a unit secretary in Swedish Medical Center’s Emergency Room, rarely interacted with patients. Shedeclined the vaccine because it went against her “personal practice of healthy choices.” But the mask interfered with her ability to communicate. She also felt “it branded me like a Scarlet Letter, in addition to being unhealthy.” She said she was terminated this month after the hospital said she’d been found at her desk with her mask pulled down off her chin.
Carol Bryant is a long-time nurse facing firing for refusing a flu shot. “I work at Porter Memorial Hospital where every employee is forced to get the vaccine or face termination,” she wrote to multiple media outlets earlier this month.
“I have been a nurse for 40 years and have never had a flu shot and have never had the flu,” she said. “Maybe I am just lucky. Or maybe repeated exposure to various viruses in the course of each of my E.R. shifts has ramped up my immune system.”
Bryant, who has been given the possibility of a religious exemption, said she does not object to other vaccinations with a strong history of success, just the flu shot. Because the influenza virus mutates every year, the vaccine changes. “We know how unreliable the flu vaccine is and weigh the benefits against the risks and make an informed, educated decision not to get it,” she said, and said several studies support her argument.
However, the Centers for Disease Control says vaccination of health care workers has been shown to help prevent death in patients, as well as reduce the influenza infection.
Flu shot policies at major Colorado hospitals
- Craig Hospital in Denver reports nine employees have resigned or were terminated since the beginning of flu season.
- St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction reports 100 percent compliance. The three Exempla hospitals on the Front Range – Lutheran, Saint Joseph and Good Samaritan – report 99.8 percent compliance.
- Centura Health reports an “overwhelming majority” of employees have been vaccinated, in a “significant benefit to the safety of our patients and the overall health of our communities.”
- HealthOne says employees must have a flu shot or wear a mask and is near 100 percent compliance among 9,500 employees this flu season. The company also initially denied that anyone has been fired over the issue, until Colorado Public News inquired about fired employee Frances Ray-Dise.
- Denver Health Medical Center, with 5,600 employees, says it is at 98 percent compliance and no one has been fired or suspended.
- The University of Colorado Hospital system, including Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, says two employees have resigned and two have been fired over the requirement, out of 15,000.
- Banner Health reports 100 percent compliance among core employees in Colorado.
Ann Imse contributed to this story.