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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

More Hospitals Are Requiring Workers To Get Flu Shots

Charlotte Albright
/
VPR
A poster in the lobby of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center offers free flu shots. They are required for all staffers without a medical or religious exemption.

Got your flu shot yet? If you work for a Vermont healthcare facility, you are no doubt being urged to get one right away. In fact, at some hospitals, employees who don’t get immunized will have to wear a mask when around patients—or lose their jobs.

That’s the policy at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Walk through the big glass doors into the circular lobby of the hospital, and you get a smile from a volunteer at the information desk. One of those greeters is Barbara Olson of West Lebanon.

Olson would not think of coming face to face with the public—including sick people—without getting a yearly flu shot.

“So I think it’s very important, and nice that they do it for free here for a lot of people,”  Olson says.

But not everyone at work here has happily rolled up their sleeves for the needle. In fact, until the flu shots became mandatory for both staffers and volunteers in 2010, only about 75 percent obliged – despite, one year, a $50 cash incentive. Some object on medical or religious grounds.

Robert McLellan is Chief of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and he oversees the flu shot program.

“One of the things that we emphasize to our patients and the public is that we are here to care for patients and we do not want people to come home sicker than when they come,” McLellan says.

And vice versa. The hospital doesn’t want the flu to cause staffing shortages. McLellan says vaccination has been required for almost five years. Anyone with a religious or medical exemption has to wear a mask when around patients. Only 100 out of 8,500 employees opt out for those two allowable reasons.

At other hospitals, the flu shot policy strikes more of a compromise. Sue Peterson is Clinical Quality Specialist at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph. She says employees may choose a mask rather than vaccine, but if they claim to have had a shot, they need paperwork to prove it.

“Probably initially we were saying, okay we take your word that you got your flu vaccine somewhere else,” Peterson says.

Some immunized workers say they get flu-like symptoms anyway, but Peterson says it’s impossible to know if  influenza was the true culprit.

“So maybe sometimes it was a cold and not the flu,” she says.

In a few states, lawsuits have been filed by nurses who don’t think flu shots should be required as a condition of employment. But in Vermont, so far, there has been little public outcry about these new rules.

Nationwide, the American Nurses Association supports mandatory immunizations only if they apply by law to every health care facility in the state.

The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Healthcare Systems does not take a position, and its informal survey finds mandatory vaccination policies in five hospitals: Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, Southwestern Vermont Health Center, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center and Central Vermont Medical Center.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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