RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And health care workers in New York State are now closer to not passing on flu to their patients. New rules will require hospital and clinic workers to get vaccinated against the seasonal flu by the end of this month and the swine flu by the end of next month. The idea of making flu shots mandatory is catching on in other states, but many health care workers aren't rolling up their sleeves.

NPR's Richard Knox has this report.

RICHARD KNOX: When it comes to flu shots, New York nurse Jemma-Marie Hanson(ph) is like most U.S. health care workers.

Ms. JEMMA-MARIE HANSON: I've never gotten vaccinated against the flu. I was always extremely healthy — never got the flu. And I went through 20-plus flu seasons of taking care of patients without getting it.

KNOX: I don't need it is the number one reason health care workers give for not getting a flu shot.

But this year, Nurse Hanson will have to get one or wear a mask for the entire flu season.

New York is the first and only state to require all workers in hospitals and clinics to get immunized against the flu — both seasonal flu and the new H1N1 virus.

Dr. Gus Birkhead is New York's deputy health commissioner. For years he's lead annual campaigns to cajole workers in hospitals and nursing homes to get flu shots. It hasn't worked. New York has never gotten even 40 percent of its health care workers immunized. So this year they're being forced to get flu shots.

Dr. GUS BIRKHEAD (New York Deputy Health Commissioner): I think it was really sitting around each year reviewing what had happened and all of our efforts, and then being disappointed by the end result that we began to come around to this idea that some kind of a requirement was going to be needed.

KNOX: Mandatory flu vaccination - it's not something that sits well with Jemma-Marie Hanson and her friends.

Ms. HANSON: The nurses that I've been speaking to are extremely concerned that they're not being given the information that they need to make an educated decision on whether they should be taking the seasonal flu vaccine as well as the H1N1 vaccine.

KNOX: We don't really know how many health care workers will refuse to get the shot, but some people have very strong feelings about it.

Mr. JOEL SHUFRO (New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health): The level of anger that we are hearing is growing, that's all I can tell you. Whether it's correct or not, people are very upset.

KNOX: That's Joel Shufro of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. It's a coalition of 200 union locals.

Opponents cite a number of reasons why they're against mandatory flu shots. The vaccine doesn't work very well, they say. It can cause serious side effects. And flu shots can cause the flu. Experts say that's a myth. But Shufro says the objections often come down to this point.

Mr. SHUFRO: I think that there are a large number of people who believe that this is a matter of principle about what is being injected into their body and they want control over that.

KNOX: Dr. Joyce Lammert has heard all the arguments. She's chief of medicine at Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center. Four years ago her hospital started requiring its staff to get flu shots.

Dr. JOYCE LAMMERT (Virginia Mason Medical Center): I'm passionate about it. I think it's one of the most important things that we can do for our patients that's really very easy.

KNOX: Persuading workers isn't always easy. The Seattle nurses got a judge to rule that mandatory vaccination needs to be part of union negotiations. But in the end, the objections largely faded away.

Dr. LAMMERT: Since the first year, it's really not been a big issue. The culture's basically changed, and people just assume that it's something that we do in the fall.

KNOX: Encouraged by the Seattle experience, more hospitals are starting to require flu shots: Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Hospital Corporation of America, the nation's largest chain, MedStar Health, a network in the Washington-Baltimore area.

Dr. William Thomas is MedStar's chief medical officer.

Dr. WILLIAM THOMAS (MedStar): We're prepared to go through the process of letting people know that they can't work in our hospital.

KNOX: You would actually fire somebody?

Dr. THOMAS: Yes.

KNOX: Thomas says hospitals are requiring all kinds of patient safety measures these days: frequent hand washing, preventing medication errors. Requiring flu shots is just part of all that.

Dr. THOMAS: Quite honestly, when I talk to people around the country, they all know we should have done this years ago. We didn't have the courage.

KNOX: The courage to take on opponents. But now, when some doctors have told Thomas they don't want to get a flu shot, he just says: Let me know the next time you go into the operating room if you don't want to scrub.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can get tips on preventing flu at npr.org and while you're there, sign up for our health podcast.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.