Hospital workers fired in wake of flu-shot rule

State health board-imposed mandate meant to protect patients

Across Colorado, hospitals are demanding all employees get flu shots or be fired.

The choice pits the safety of sick patients who could die from a hospital-acquired case of influenza, against the rights of employees to refuse a shot.

Nationally, flu contributes to 3,000 to 49,000 deaths a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is especially dangerous to already-frail hospital patients.

In Colorado, at least 20 hospital employees in Colorado have lost their jobs since the beginning of flu season

It’s difficult to get an accurate count because most hospitals will not share personnel records. A Facebook page called “Colorado Healthcare Workers Against Forced Vaccination” has some 250 members, including a rehabilitation therapist, a chiropractor, a medical physicist and clerical staff members. One wrote, “I was suspended, not actually fired, until the end of the ‘flu season,’ but the result is the same, no work, no paycheck.”

The state Board of Health in February adopted new rules requiring the shots. The result is far more workers got immunized this year than in previous years.

Mercy Regional Medical Center gave 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.

Many hospitals are insisting that 100 percent of their employees get the flu shot immediately. Staff members who get an exemption for medical or religious reasons must wear a mask at work for months during the winter flu season.

State public health director Joni Reynolds applauded the hospitals’ efforts.

“Our goal is to protect the most vulnerable – the sickest adults, the seniors, the children, the ones who have chronic health conditions,” she said. “That puts them at significant risk if they were to have influenza.”

At Craig Hospital in Denver, a 20-person infection control committee approved the flu-shot rule unanimously. As the rehab hospital’s clientele are recovering from brain and spinal cord injuries, they are “especially vulnerable,” the hospital explained in an email. Nine of Craig’s employees resigned or were terminated as a result of the rule, the hospital said.

Frances Ray-Dise says she was one of the nine. She was a unit secretary and refused the vaccine because she believes it contains harmful substances. She also thinks that drug companies’ desires for profits are driving the campaign for flu shots. Ray-Dise said she tried wearing a mask at work, but it interfered with her ability to speak clearly.

Ray-Dise said she was fired in October, reinstated and told she could request an exemption based on religious beliefs, and then fired again for not wearing a mask. She said she knows a dozen other people who were unhappy about the rules but complied.

“They love their work, they love their jobs. And truly, they are up against the wall and feel they have no choice in the matter. What happened to freedom of choice? What happened to informed consent?” she asked.

Ray-Dise is not alone. The University of Colorado Hospital system, which includes Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, says two employees have resigned and two have been fired, out of 15,000.

University Hospital spokesman Dan Weaver said the hospital already has seen 12 patients seriously ill with flu this season. “We are taking a firm stance on this issue because it is important for the safety of our patients,” he said.

But Nancy Markow, a unit secretary in Swedish Medical Center’s Emergency Room, said she rarely interacted with patients. She declined the vaccine because it went against her “personal practice of healthy choices.” But the mask interfered with her ability to communicate. She also felt “it branded me like a Scarlet Letter, in addition to being unhealthy.” She said she was terminated this month after the hospital said she’d been found at her desk with her mask pulled down off her chin.

Carol Bryant is a long-time nurse facing firing for refusing a flu shot. “I work at Porter Memorial Hospital where every employee is forced to get the vaccine or face termination,” she wrote to multiple media outlets earlier this month.

“I have been a nurse for 40 years and have never had a flu shot and have never had the flu,” she said. “Maybe I am just lucky. Or maybe repeated exposure to various viruses in the course of each of my E.R. shifts has ramped up my immune system.”

Bryant, who has been given the possibility of a religious exemption, said she does not object to other vaccinations with a strong history of success, just the flu shot. Because the influenza virus mutates every year, the vaccine changes. “We know how unreliable the flu vaccine is and weigh the benefits against the risks and make an informed, educated decision not to get it,” she said, and said several studies support her argument.

However, the Centers for Disease Control says vaccination of health-care workers has been shown to help prevent death in patients, as well as reduce the influenza infection.