Vaccines & Viruses: Nurses who refuse flu shots must wear masks

Vaccines & Viruses
by Daniel James Devine
Posted 9/29/15, 12:25 pm

‘Tis the season. October and the start of flu season are nearly here, and that means nurses in many hospitals and clinics across the country must get their flu shots. Those who decline to do so—because they mistrust the flu shot’s safety or for other reasons—may be asked to wear surgical masks for the entire flu season, even on days they are healthy. Others may be fired.

Some jurisdictions are taking a hard line on medical workers and flu vaccines. In 2013, Rhode Island became the first state to mandate flu shots for all healthcare workers who have contact with patients. According to National Nurses United, the number of hospitals mandating flu vaccines increased from just a couple in 2005 to more than 400 in 2013. The union says hundreds of nurses have been fired for refusing to get the annual shots.

Pressure is also coming from federal officials, who began reporting hospital employee flu vaccination rates on the Medicare website in December 2014.

Flu shot mandates seem to be having their intended effect. Seventy-seven percent of healthcare workers reported getting a flu shot last season, up from an estimated 64 percent four years ago, according to a new nonrandom survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At workplaces that mandate flu shots (typically hospitals), the coverage rate last season was a remarkable 96 percent, the survey found. Forty percent of respondents worked in healthcare settings mandating flu shots, up from 21 percent during the 2011-12 flu season.

Last year, San Diego County in California declared a “flu shot or mask” policy for nurses and other health workers. Apparently as a result, the average hospital staff vaccine refusal rate dropped to 9 percent in 2014-15, down from 17 percent the year before.

But some nurses aren’t happy about what they see as strong-arm tactics to force annual shots on them. Nurses’ unions are divided: The American Nurses Association released a position statement in August calling on nurses to receive recommended vaccines (including for flu) with only religious or medical exemptions permitted. On the other hand, National Nurses United has opposed flu shot mandates, saying they engender “distrust and resistance” among employees.

Last year, the Massachusetts Nurses Association sued Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston over its mandatory flu shot policy. And in Canada, the Ontario Nurses Association recently won the right for its nurses to work without flu shots or masks after an arbitrator ruled an area hospital’s “vaccinate or mask” policy had been used as a “coercive tool.” Those who oppose masking policies say research has not shown surgical masks to be reliable at preventing the spread of diseases.

“They were basically coercing and shaming nurses into getting the influenza vaccine if they individually chose not to take it,” ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud complained to The Canadian Press. “They made them all wear masks and they had little stickers on their nametag that everyone knew meant ‘I don’t have my vaccine.’”

For the birds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given conditional approval to a flu vaccine for turkeys and chickens—the first such vaccine since the devastating outbreak that killed 48 million birds this spring.

Ebola priorities. In September, federal agencies awarded $28.5 million to Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies for the development of its Ebola vaccine, and awarded $8.1 million to a subsidiary of NewLink Genetics for its Ebola vaccine, which Merck is developing. If you read WORLD’s recent story on vaccines and fetal tissue, you’ll know the former is made with aborted fetal cell lines, and the latter is not.

California repeal campaign. Monday was the deadline for opponents of California’s new school vaccine law to submit nearly 366,000 signatures needed to put the law to a voter referendum. It’s not yet clear whether campaigners have collected the required number of signatures.

Care for her. Scientists are working to develop vaccines to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. Clinical trials of one vaccine, which treats a subset of the disease called triple-negative breast cancer, got a $13.2 million boost from the Department of Defense this month.

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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