As cases of influenza continue to spread at the fastest rate in nearly a decade, hospitals around the country are buckling down on safety precautions, with some hospitals going so far as to mandate flu vaccinations for all employees.
In some states, the mandates have led to termination for employees who refuse to comply with the shots. In the past two months, 15 nurses and hospital staff members in four states have lost their jobs over the issue, reported The Associated Press.
The firings have prompted debate over whether required vaccinations for hospital staff are an infringement on personal freedom or if it is a necessary safety measure.
JASMINE ROGERS The Marietta Times
Marietta Nursing Director Tricia LaBarre, right, takes the blood pressure of resident Carolyn Hathaway, 78, of Vienna, W.Va. at Heartland of Marietta Tuesday. Though LaBarre has gotten a flu vaccination, she still wears a mask, a safety precaution even more strongly encouraged for Heartland employees that opted not to receive a flu shot this year.
"It should be up to them," said Sardis resident Mary Martie, 51.
Though she has already gotten her own flu shot this season, Martie said that firing people who opt out of a flu shot is going too far.
"Some people are just strongly against them," she pointed out.
The Marietta City Health Department has no official policy but all nine staff members opted to receive the vaccination this year.
The Washington County Health Department has no official policy and does not track how many of the county's eight health care providers have received the vaccination.
The Memorial Health System and affiliated facilities do not mandate the vaccination but require employees who opt out to sign a waiver, and they track vaccination rates among employees.
Camden Clark Medical Center and affiliated facilities do not mandate the vaccination but require employees who opt out to sign a waiver, and they track vaccination rates among employees.
Locally, neither the Washington County Health Department, nor the Marietta City Health Department have an official policy regarding the flu vaccination among employees.
"We don't have a policy in place because we've never run into that issue," said Jonni Tucker, a registered nurse at the Marietta department.
The nine staff members at the city health department have all opted to receive the vaccination this year, she said.
Ken Robinson, interim administrator of the county health department, said he does not know how many of the county's three nurses or five members of the dental clinic are vaccinated. There is no official policy in place, he noted.
Similarly, neither the Memorial Health System nor Camden Clark Medical Center mandate that employees receive the vaccination. However, the local hospitals do have a structured policy in place and track vaccination percentages among employees.
"Our policy is that all employees are encouraged to have the flu vaccine or are required to sign a waiver to decline one," said Scott Cantley, CEO of The Memorial Health System, which includes Marietta Memorial Hospital, Selby General Hospital and other health care facilities in the region.
That policy encompasses all employees, from nurses and doctors to accountants and custodians, and includes all facilities that fall under the Memorial Health System's umbrella, said Cantley.
Currently, 75 percent of the company's approximately 1,700 employees have been vaccinated, he said.
Each year, those numbers are reported to agencies including the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and plans are for the numbers to eventually be posted online for consumer comparison. Also, the statistics are educational for each facility, as they work to get the immunization rates higher each year, said Jennifer Offenberger, director of marketing and public relations for the Memorial Health System.
At Camden Clark Medical Center, both the policy and the percentage of vaccinated employees are almost identical, said Tim Brunicardi, director of marketing.
"Normally they start putting out a notice in the fall and employees sign a waiver if they don't want a flu shot," said Brunicardi.
Reasons for refusing a flu shot can vary, said Margene Brown, a registered nurse in Marietta Memorial Hospital's Employee Health Department, which processes all of the declination waivers.
"Well, I've been vaccinated because I'm a strong believer in the flu shot, but certainly, I've talked to a lot of employees," said Brown.
A small amount of individuals are actually allergic to the flu vaccination, she said. But more often, employees opt out for other reasons, said Brown.
"Really what I hear most people saying is either they don't feel like they are at risk or they are afraid that they might get side effects from the shot," she said.
If employees do refuse a shot, they are not required to give a reason, said Brunicardi.
Though MMH and CCMC have both tracked their vaccination rates among employees for years, soon all hospitals will be required to do so.
The Associated Press reported that this year the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will start requiring hospitals to report employees' flu vaccination rates in hopes of helping the government reach a goal of 90 percent coverage of health care workers by 2020.
Beverly resident Goldie Sampson, 85, said she thinks everybody should get a flu shot. Still, she said, no one should have it forced upon them.
"I think it should be their choice. I have a granddaughter that works at the (Marietta Memorial) hospital and I think that she should have her choice," said Sampson.
Sampson said firing people who do not want the shot is unjust, but added that direct care employees should let their patients know they haven't had a flu shot.
Heartland of Marietta, a 101-bed nursing and rehabilitation facility in Devola, offers the vaccine to its approximately 200 employees who fill out a form to either accept or decline the vaccination, said registered nurse Tricia LaBarre, director of nursing.
"With the flu being widespread this year, we do ask that they wear a mask if they decline," said LaBarre, adding the policy is strongly recommended, but not demanded.
At MMH and Camden Clark, employees utilize standard safety precautions, such as using gloves, masks and sanitizers.
"It's as safe as can possibly be," said Brunicardi.
It was those safety precautions that put Waterford resident Kelly Miller, 31, at ease when she gave birth to daughter, Nora, at Marietta Memorial Hospital last month.
"The hospital did an amazing job. Every nurse used antibacterial foam and sanitizers. I was very impressed and very happy," said Miller.
Concern for influenza is not reserved for the hospital staff, said Miller, who herself is a teacher.
"We were concerned with anybody, including our family," she said.
However, mandating flu shots for hospital staff could be a slippery slope, she said.
"If you're going to require nurses, what about teachers or anybody who comes into contact with those at a high risk? Are you then going to mandate all of them? I think that you can't isolate one group," said Miller, who did receive her vaccination this year.
When she was a bank employee in Parkersburg, Leah Lent, 80, of Lowell, was required to get a flu shot for years.
"It never really bothered me," said Lent of the requirement.
The shot should be a personal choice, said Lent, who still gets one even though it is no longer required of her.
But, added Lent, "I think probably they should get one if they're going to be working with patients."