CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston Area Medical Center employees must get seasonal flu shots this year or risk losing their jobs.
All CAMC Health System workers must get vaccinated by Dec. 15 or their employment will be terminated, CAMC said in its August newsletter Vital Signs.
“The strongest recommendation that’s out there is to take the vaccine every year,” CAMC Director of Epidemiology Terrie Lee said Tuesday. “Our board of trustees and administrators had been discussing this for a couple years. We decided this year to make it a mandatory process for all of our employees.”
Employees may submit a request for accommodation due to health reasons, such as allergies to a component of the flu vaccine. They have until Sept. 15 to do so, and if requests are confirmed, those employees would have to wear a mask over their nose and mouth while at work during flu season, the newsletter said.
“That’s interesting,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said when asked about CAMC’s new policy. “Health care employees are very essential to any flu response efforts.”
From a public health standpoint it is a positive step, Gupta said, adding he was curious to see if other hospitals follow CAMC’s lead.
“I’m not aware of any national guidelines recommending that all employees of any institutions, hospitals or not, be forced to have flu vaccines,” Gupta said. “However … I do understand they are private employers, and private employers do have a right to expect a healthy work force.”
Flu shots will start Nov. 2 and will be offered at employee health offices and on nursing units, the newsletter said.
The requirement covers about 6,000 employees, including clinical staff, workers in off-site locations and office workers, CAMC said.
CAMC workers who submit requests for an accommodation regarding the flu shot because of health limitations must provide documentation from a physician or take a free allergy test, Lee said.
“Nobody would be given the vaccine if it would be a dangerous thing for them to do,” Lee said.
CAMC always has offered free flu vaccinations to employees, Lee said, and it has raised its worker vaccination rate to 70 percent over the past few years from earlier rates of about 30 percent to 40 percent.
Past efforts to raise the flu shot rate have included training nursing staff representatives to educate and vaccinate their co-workers and requiring employees who work with patients to sign a declination statement if they choose not to take the vaccine, Lee said.
But CAMC officials want to raise the vaccination rate to 100 percent to help avoid spreading influenza or negatively affecting patient recovery, Lee said.
“It’s just not good for anybody,” Lee said. “People are infectious to other people with the flu before they become symptomatic.
“Many people are certainly misinformed about that,” Lee added. “They’ll say ‘I would never want to make anybody sick. If I’m sick, I’ll stay home.’ That sounds like a real good idea and yet… it’s too late.”
This is the first time CAMC has required mandatory vaccinations for the seasonal flu, Lee said. However, the hospital system requires several other vaccinations for workers upon hire. That includes measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, tetanus, pertussis and diphtheria.
Lee said she was unaware of any other hospitals in West Virginia requiring flu vaccinations for employment but colleagues seemed excited about the idea.
“Everybody who works in infection prevention as I do believes this is a critical element of their infection prevention program in their facility,” Lee said.
Lee did not have a figure for how much the increased flu vaccines and allergy tests would cost but said it was not expected to be a huge additional cost and it also could help reduce absenteeism from illness.
Feedback has come from both employees who are glad for the policy and those who are unhappy about being told what to do, Lee said.
“Some of the people that have been so committed to increasing our participation feel that they’re really gung ho about getting their co-workers to get the vaccine,” Lee said.
With the unhappy workers, “we’ve had to gently remind them that there are other vaccines that they had to take to work here,” Lee said.
“It’s not an unusual concept,” Lee added. “It’s just one that has not been implemented regarding this vaccine up to this point.”
Other vaccines usually are given to a person once or as a series, whereas the flu shot is given every year, Lee said.
“It’s a safe vaccine,” Lee said. “It’s very good and effective, especially for young, healthy people.”
The decision to make the seasonal flu shot mandatory comes as international concerns grow regarding swine flu, but Lee said the seasonal flu shot decision was unrelated.
“It’s one of our top goals that’s worked on for the infectious control plan,” Lee said of the seasonal flu vaccine. “It’s one of our top priorities. This was sort of a natural next step.”
As for the swine flu, CAMC has no immediate plans to make that mandatory but expects to follow recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding targeted groups to receive that particular vaccination, Lee said. Also, it still is unclear how much of the swine flu vaccine CAMC will receive, she said.
“It’s not going to be something that is going to be readily available to all employees,” Lee said.
“We would within our system then apply those categories to our own population and determine what the priorities are and develop a system for delivering them. It would probably not be mandatory, but we really have not made that kind of decision.”