The Flu Shot Controversy: Get A Vaccine Or Get Fired?

(Neon Tommy) While vaccines are an important aspect of healthcare, many people, even nurses, refuse to get a flu shot. Their refusal leads to questions about the flu shot’s purpose, efficacy and impact on social issues.

This year’s season of influenza, commonly known as the flu, was labeled “moderately severe” by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). An early start to the season and a particular viral strain that tended to make people more sick, especially the vulnerable elderly, led to rising concerns. While few logical and compelling reasons exist for healthcare workers to refuse flu shots, especially during a busy flu season, compromises can be made that would ensure patient safety and allow leeway for employee rights.  However, creating a mandatory policy for healthcare workers to receive flu vaccinations and firing those who do not comply, as the Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital did, would simply backfire.

While hospitals and clinics need vaccinated medical practitioners in order to take better care of patients and prevent the spread of infection, making flu shots mandatory would simple add frustrating amounts of unnecessary red tape. Such a policy could also create a “hostile work environment,” says DeAnn McEwan, the president of the California Nurses Association (CNA). Though the CNA opposes such a policy, they do recommend their nurses get vaccinated. Not only would a policy like this cost the hospital more time and money in enforcing such requirements, but punitive measures, such as firing workers, could also mean losing qualified nurses. The Indiana hospital, for example, fired a nurse who had worked there for 22 years and was “like family” to her colleagues. Finding a replacement for someone like her, training them in the hospital’s policies and allowing them to build work relationships could lead to an additional burden that a hospital could not afford to shoulder, especially during a flu season.

However, the news so far has glossed over the reasons behind workers’ opposition to receiving flu shots. Some cite allergic reactions to the vaccine, a seemingly reasonable argument, but apparently those reactions can be overcome with the November 2012 approval of egg-free vaccines for those who may be allergic. Other practitioners do not believe the vaccine is effective, although this year’s vaccine was shown to have a 99 percent effectiveness against the most common flu strain and a 60 percent effectiveness against the second most common strain, numbers which are high, relative to vaccine standards.

Currently, hospitals are required to and do provide flu vaccinations free of charge for their workers. They urge all medical practitioners to get vaccinated and follow other simple procedures, such as washing their hands to prevent the flu from spreading. Many also require or strongly recommend medical practitioners to wear masks covering their nose and mouth, especially when interacting with patients. Some non-vaccinated nurses have disagreed about wearing masks, citing a lack of evidence that masks can help reduce the rate of infection from the flu. Nonetheless, part of a medical practitioner’s job description is to protect a patient’s safety.

Thus, if a flu vaccine is not an option for some medical practitioners, then wearing a mask, even if its benefits are unproven, and following other infection-prevention hospital procedures would be a small price to pay for ensuring a patient’s safety while maintaining individual rights. Perhaps a good solution would be to require practitioners who come into contact with patients to disclose their unvaccinated status, and then let the patient decide whether or not they would prefer to be treated by someone with a flu vaccination. This way, an employee’s rights can be balanced with allowing patients to choose the best care possible. Of course, this may not work in all cases, especially with pediatric patients, but it could be a step in the right direction. In the meantime, what should you, as a patient, do?

The answer is simple: get a flu shot! Here are some facts that may ease the trepidation surrounding flu shots. This year’s vaccine is 60 percent effective, which is normal for vaccine standards, meaning that it can specifically target the strain of flu that is going around. Today’s vaccines can even be administered with shorter, less painful subcutaneous needles, rather than the traditional intramuscular ones; or best of all, via nasal spray – eliminating needles altogether.

And, the West Coast and Southwest regions are still flu hot spots, so if you live in these areas, it is not too late to get vaccinated. People surrounded by others constantly (if, for example, they travel by public transportation or live in a college dorm), regardless of geography, should get vaccinated as well. Now, what are you waiting for? Get your flu shot, and ask your nurse whether she got one, too. You might be in for a more interesting story than you anticipated.