Hospital policy requires employees to take flu shot
By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
When flu season rolls around, no one is sure what to expect. Will this year’s strain of the highly contagious illness prove to be especially hard to endure, or will it pass over the population lightly?
One thing is certain amid all influenza’s unknowns: Liberal and area residents won’t be contracting the illness from employees at Southwest Medical Center. The hospital required all its workers, professionals and administrative staff – 380 people in all — to receive the 2013 flu shot. The hospital picked up the cost for the shots.
A second certainty resulting from that decision: in the months ahead, if people do contract the flu, SWMC will stand ready to nurse them back to health.
“It’s all about patient safety,” said human resources director Lisa Mathes. “Keeping our patients safe, keeping our employees safe, the nurses and their families, that’s really what it’s all about. If we have a flu epidemic, we’ve got to have people taking care of the patients.” That’s not easy when employees are sick themselves, she pointed out.
Liberal USD 480 wrestles with the same problem, said the district’s human resources director Jason McAfee.
“I remember when I was a principal, how difficult it was during flu season,” he said. “You might have five kids out in a class due to sickness, which is hard enough, but then you have the other problem of a staff of 40 teachers and some of them are gone, too. It can be really difficult to find substitute teachers.”
The school district does not require its more than 3,000 employees to be immunized, but it does encourage them to do so. It may even take steps to make getting the shot less of a hassle, said McAfee.
“We just sent out a questionnaire to our employees asking if they’d like us to bring a health professional in to make it easier for them,” he said. “We’d really like as many as possible to get the flu shot. It only takes one kid, one teacher, and those germs spread so quickly from building to building to building.”
Last year, McAfee noted, at the flu season’s peak, the district recorded 20 percent of the student body was absent from school.
Seward County Health Department director Martha Brown said it’s always hard to tell how severe the flu will be from year to year.
“It varies wildly,” she said. “Some years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Kansas Department of Health, we have 3,000 deaths nationwide. Other years, it’s 23,000. That’s not just a few people, that’s a big number.”
Unlike childhood diseases, which have been all but eradicated through vaccination programs, the flu changes each year and is hard to control. Health professionals aim to develop what the CDC refers to as “herd immunity,” that is, a collective resistance to disease. Getting large numbers of people immunized will benefit each institution and the community as a whole, said Mathes.
But that’s hard to do, noted Brown.
“Flu is so prevalent and so contagious that herd immunity is not really possible. Ninety percent of the public haven’t had the flu shot,” she said. In fact, as of Oct. 28, the Seward County Health Department had administered 1,200 shots, a number roughly 5 percent of the county’s population. Shots are available through private health care providers and at some pharmacies, so the actual rate of immunization in the county may be higher. Even so, it is far from a majority. Why the resistance?
With the prospect of government-mandated healthcare around the corner, “a lot of people feel being required to get the shot is just one more thing our government makes us do,” Brown said.
Most employers in Liberal have taken the route of educating employees and requesting they cooperate. At Wheatridge Park nursing home, employees have the option of getting the flu shot for free, but “it’s not mandatory,” said nurse Norma Gonzales. “Most of us do, because we’re in a facility with lots of elderly people and it’s mainly for them that we do it. They are more vulnerable, their immune systems are weaker.”
Seward County holds a flu clinic each year, inviting county employees to participate.
“It’s not free, but insurance covers a lot of it,” said Maria Aguilar, administrative assistant. “Out of maybe 300 employees, about 50 got the shot. We’re not required to do it. It’s a personal thing.”
At Southwest Medical Center, said Mathes, “we expected a small amount of pushback,” when the hospital announced to employees in September that they had to be vaccinated in order to retain their jobs. The move was consistent with industry best practices, Mathes said, noting that large institutions like Wesley Medical Center and Via Christi, both in Wichita, have instituted the same policy.
“We haven’t had much (resistance),” Mathes said. “To date, we’ve had no one resign, nor have we terminated anyone. We have approved a few qualified exemptions.” In keeping with CDC standards, allergies or religious convictions would qualify people for exemption, as would doctor’s orders stating that a person should not receive an immunization for specific medical reasons.
“Right now, 99 percent of our employees are compliant,” said Mathes.
As one of those employees, SWMC public relations director Keeley Moree said, “I really appreciate that I have this vaccination made available by the hospital and that I’m able to protect myself from the flu. Before I began working here, I never elected to get a flu shot because of the cost.”
Brown said the hospital’s decision to require immunizations was a bold one that will benefit more than just the patients.
“Honestly and truly, I admire them doing this,” she said. “People need to get immunized. There are some heartbreaking stories out there, and you never want to see someone lose a family member to a sickness that could have been prevented.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tomorrow, the Leader & Times will feature a story about how to identify and avoid influenza as the “flu season” approaches. Shots are not the only way to be immunized.