JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Hospitals across the country are putting more pressure on healthcare workers to get flu vaccinations as the CDC reports the 2012-2013 flu season shows no signs of slowing down.
Nationwide, hospital administrators are reportedly mandating that healthcare personnel get the flu vaccine, or face penalties such as a suspension or firing.
NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital and St. Bernards Medical Center policies do not require employees to get the flu vaccine, but strongly encourage it.
Dr. Douglas Seglem, the NICU Medical Director at St. Bernards and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics for UAMS and Arkansas Children's Hospital said most healthcare employees he has worked with support getting the vaccine because not getting it puts too many people at risk.
"As many as 5,000 to 20,000 deaths a year occur from influenza, and many of the patients we come into contact with are not already infected with influenza, but if they get infected from us, then we potentially could be responsible for causing a potentially deadly illness in a patient," he said.
"There is always the debate about whether all healthcare workers should be mandated to take the flu shot or not, and that's a difficult question. I support encouraging health care workers to get the flu shot. I don't know if it's the right thing to mandate that all of them must or else face potentially losing their job. That's an important debate in this country right now."
In December, a Rhode Island labor union filed a lawsuit against the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health for requiring all healthcare employees to get the flu vaccine. According to the lawsuit, those who had been medically exempt, or chose not to get the vaccine for other reasons would be forced to wear surgical masks.
The lawsuit goes on to say "those health care workers who violated the Regulations would be fined $100 per violation and each such violation would be considered to constitute "unprofessional conduct" jeopardizing professional licensure."
Susan Greenwood, St. Bernards Nurse Executive and Vice President of Quality, Safety and Risk Management said St. Bernards follows flu vaccine protocol based on CDC recommendations and the hospital's accrediting agency.
"We follow the guidelines from the Joint Commission who is our accrediting agency, and they ask that we have a vaccination program in place, and that we offer it to our employees, and that we gather the reasons for them not accepting the vaccination, and then we work to improve the rates," she said.
"We provide it free of charge, which, that is not required by the regulations, but we don't want there to be any barriers in place for any employees accepting the vaccination."
The flu vaccine policy at NEA Baptist is similar to St. Bernards. According to NEA Baptist Clinic Marketing Director Deaundra Waddell, NEA is on the verge of meeting the hospital's goal of a 90 percent flu vaccine compliance rate for the estimated 700 employees at the hospital.
Any NEA Baptist employee who has direct contact with patients is strongly encouraged to get the vaccine that is offered free of charge, and has to sign paperwork accepting or declining vaccination.
Waddell said that group includes nurses, doctors, admissions workers, cafeteria workers, environmental services employees, support staff, volunteers and security officers.
NEA Baptist and St. Bernards also provide flu vaccine education classes for employees.
Greenwood said the employees who choose not to get the vaccine often have the same misconceptions about it as the general public.
"Some of the most common reasons is people just don't like to take shots, or it might be that they're worried about getting the flu from the flu shot, and it's true it does hurt. It makes your arm sore, and you can feel a little achy or fatigued, but it's not going to give you the flu."