Failure by health-care workers to get a flu vaccination to protect patients can get them fired.
The state Board of Health rule approved in February has gone largely unnoticed by anyone but hospital administrators.
Mercy Regional Medical Center has given employees until Dec. 15 to get a flu shot, even though the health board rule allows medical facilities until 2014 to have 90 percent of their personnel vaccinated against the flu.
“Our first job is to keep patients safe,” Dr. John A.K. Boyd, chief medical officer at the hospital, said Friday. “We cannot accommodate religious or personal preferences.”
Dr. Chris Urbina, chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the rule applies only to health-care workers who have contact with patients.
“But I’d urge everyone to get a flu shot,” Urbina said. “Herd immunity means that the more people who get a vaccination, the more protection there is for everyone, not just patients.”
No one from Animas Surgical Hospital returned a call to explain how it will address the issue. Mercy is going above and beyond the state standard, hospital spokesman David Bruzzese said. Its policy applies to all employees, clinical and nonclinical, he said.
“We want to be safe,” Bruzzese said. “Employees come into contact with others in the hallway, the cafeteria or the lobby.”
The only Mercy employee exempt from the rule is one with a life-threatening allergy to eggs, egg protein or other components of the flu vaccine; a life-threatening reaction to a previous flu vaccination; or a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome (an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system).
Even then, exempt employees must wear a surgical mask during flu season, November to March, when in contact with patients or in common areas.
“It’s our ethical and professional responsibility to protect patients,” Bruzzese said.
He said 88 percent of Mercy employees – full-time, part-time and as-needed personnel – have their flu vaccination.
“We decided to go for the maximum right away,” Bruzzese said.
Mercy employees who don’t have a flu vaccination by Dec. 15 will be put on a 15-day unpaid leave. If they don’t comply upon returning, they will be fired, Boyd said.
Boyd defended the vaccination rule in a response to a reader’s letter to The Durango Herald in August that questioned the efficacy of flu vaccines and said that not all pregnant women can have the shot.
“Every year, influenza claims the lives of 20,000 to 40,000 people in the U.S., and more than 200,000 are hospitalized with complications of this vaccine-preventable disease,” Boyd wrote. “Hospitalized patients who have serious medical problems are particularly vulnerable to the life-threatening complications of influenza.”
Boyd said Centura Health, the parent system for Mercy and other hospitals, senior communities and hospices, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Colorado Hospital Association and the American Hospital Association favor mandatory influenza vaccinations for health workers.
The health-board rule calls for 60 percent of employees at state-licensed hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers and long-term nursing facilities to have flu vaccinations by Dec. 31; 75 percent must be vaccinated by the end of 2013; and 90 percent by Dec. 31, 2014.
Facilities that don’t hit the target dates must develop and implement a vaccination policy.
Those that meet the deadlines or exceed them don’t have to do anything more.