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Vaccinating hospital staffs should be non-negotiable

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 15, 2010 at 7:45 pm |
November 15, 2010 6:47 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Of all people in the world, those who work in hospitals and medical clinics – physicians, nurses, cafeteria workers, etc. – ought to be vaccinated against influenza.

It shouldn’t even be controversial. Many patients are fragile and highly susceptible to the flu. They can’t rely on “herd immunity,” which can protect unvaccinated members in a group that is mostly immunized. All it takes is one infected nurse or aide to spread the potentially deadly flu virus to the severely ill.

Shockingly, though, roughly half the country’s hospital workers aren’t getting flu shots. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated that only 62 percent of health care professionals – a category that includes doctors and registered nurses – got the vaccine in the 2009-2010 flu season.

Washington does quite a bit better than that. The Washington State Hospital Association recently announced that nearly all of the state’s hospitals now require that their employees either get flu shots or take other protective measures.

In the South Sound, the Franciscan and MultiCare health systems – which include Tacoma General, Mary Bridge, St. Joseph and Good Samaritan hospitals – have fairly robust vaccination rules.

MultiCare, which describes its policy as a requirement, reports that 86 percent of its caregivers got vaccinated last season; about 60 percent are already vaccinated this season. It requires the non-vaccinated to wear masks – which at least alert patients and other staff members that they are potential vectors.

Franciscan describes its policy as voluntary, but its administration is hoping for a rate of at least 80 percent. It reports that 56 percent have been vaccinated so far for the current flu season. It has no mask requirement.

Their numbers are far better than the national average, and their efforts should be applauded – but neither matches Virginia Mason in Seattle.

Virginia Mason Medical Center has achieved a 98 percent rate, according to a new report from the Infectious Diseases Society of America. The hospital does not equivocate on the issue. Five years ago, it declared vaccination a “fitness for duty” requirement; it ordered its employees to either get shots – unless there were a good medical reason not to – or else find another place to work.

It’s hard to see why the Virginia Mason policy shouldn’t be universal among hospitals. Medicine is a scientific discipline, and its practitioners – on all levels – should be expected to accept the medical consensus on such a fundamental public health measure.

There are Americans who fear flu vaccines and don’t understand the science behind them. They have a right to refuse vaccines. But if they choose to do so, they don’t belong in hospital rooms wearing scrubs.

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