Seasonal influenza (flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness. Serious outcomes of flu infection can result in hospitalization or death. Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk of serious flu complications.
The CDC recommends that healthcare professionals get vaccinated each year as the best way to prevent the flu. However, the CDC does not issue any requirements or mandates for state agencies, health systems, or healthcare workers regarding influenza vaccination or the use of masks.
As per the CDC, the annual direct costs—such as hospital and doctor’s office visits and medications—of influenza in the United States are an estimated $4.6 billion. The flu causes U.S. workers to lose up to 111 million workdays at an estimated $7 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity.
These numbers highlight the rationale for organizations and hospitals to consider requiring employees to get an annual flu shot. However, before implementing such a requirement, hospitals and organizations need to weigh many different factors. While a flu vaccine offers the greatest protection against the virus, mandating it carries its own logistical costs and can lead to unhappy employees.
Flu Vaccination: Personal Choice or Employer Mandate?
Recently, 50 healthcare employees were fired after refusing a flu shot at Essential Health in Minnesota. “Purely voluntary [vaccination] or more education doesn’t get you those high levels of immunization compliance,” said Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, the company’s chief of patient quality and safety. Prabhu said it was essential that he take a mandatory approach. Since September, Essentia has told employees, volunteers, students, and vendors that they have three options: get the flu shot, get an approved religious or medical exemption, or leave Essentia.
Many hospitals have implemented mandatory flu vaccine programs because it reduces strain on the workforce and because programs like these are thought to reduce transmission of flu to patients, thus reducing their length of stay and readmissions. Most hospitals have exceptions for religious or health reasons, and if an employee doesn’t get a flu shot, they may be required to wear a mask in public/patient areas. In addition to wearing masks, proper handwashing and isolation of sick patients can decrease spreading of the flu.
The primary arguments for mandatory vaccinations for healthcare professionals are:
- Patient Safety: Vaccinations keep patients safer from contagious staff members for best patient outcomes.
- Staff Safety: Vaccinations protect hospital staff from acquiring upper respiratory infections, thus reducing staff infections.
- Cost Savings: Hospitals and organizations will experience fewer staffing shortages from illness-related absenteeism.
On the contrary, many healthcare professionals feel that vaccinations, especially the flu shot, should be a personal choice and not be forced upon employees.
The primary arguments for individual choice are:
- Not a necessity for health adults: Healthcare professionals can wear masks instead to protect themselves and others.
- Too many flu strains: Each year there are many different flu strains, and the vaccine does not protect against all of them.
- Setting a precedent: If forced immunizations for a set profession are widely accepted, will all vaccinations become mandatory?
Vaccination is a very controversial topic. Both sides have valid points and strong opinions on whether to vaccinate or not and whether to mandate vaccinations or not. Ultimately, each healthcare professional needs to make a choice and, in case of a vaccination mandate in the workplace, face the consequences.
To learn more about 2017–2018 Seasonal Flu, take our 2 contact hour CEU course:
Influenza: Seasonal Flu 2017-2018: Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention
Applicable for nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and EMS personnel.
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