Several nurses at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles are objecting to a policy that requires them to wear facial masks if they don’t get a flu shot out of the belief that their health privacy rights are being violated.
They also argue that patients are made uncomfortable by seeing caregivers who are not sick wearing masks. They say there are other methods of stopping spread of the flu, such as having sick workers stay home, or keeping them away from patients. In addition, they say medical staff can wash hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub – and keep all surfaces clean and disinfected.
“Wearing the masks is basically like the 2017 version of the scarlet letter,” said one nurse who asked not to be identified due to concerns about retribution. “There’s a million reasons why people don’t get a flu shot and I think it’s very personal.”
Another nurse expressed worry that if someone who did not get the shot came down with the flu and called in sick, there could be punitive measures taken.
“My whole career has been about helping people and protecting lives. I certainly wouldn’t put others at risk,” that individual said.
Hospital administrators contend that most local health care professionals and numerous national organizations are united in the belief that requiring a vaccine or a mask protects patients not only from the flu but life-threatening complications.
“MCMC has a duty to protect the health of staff, patients and visitors,” said Louis Teyner, director of quality and risk management, in a written statement. “In order to prevent potentially life-threatening complications among the most vulnerable members of our community, including the elderly, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions, MCMC has decided to stand with a large part of the health care community and require staff to get the flu vaccine or wear a mask.”
Kevin Mealy, communications manager for the Oregon Nurses Association, said a meeting has been set for Dec. 21 with MCMC officials to discuss the issue.
“Our goal is to always provide outstanding patient care, which we think we can do while protecting the private health care information of nurses,” he said. “We hope that we can come up with evidence-based solutions during our meeting that don’t require nurses to reveal their private health care decisions.”
ONA represents more than 13,500 nurses in Oregon and has filed unfair labor practice complaints against other hospitals, such as St. Charles Health System in Bend, for holding employees and volunteers to the same standards as MCMC.
Mealy said the policies ONA has supported at other facilities ensures nurses’ vaccination status is kept confidential and limits masking requirements to patient areas.
A press release by MCMC stated that influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and even death. Every year, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized for flu-related complications and about 36,000 die as a result of the illness.
“Although many of our staff are fortunate to enjoy excellent health, even healthy individuals can get very sick from the flu and spread the disease to others,” stated the release.
MCMC lists the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee, along with 12 other organizations, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, as recommending annual flu vaccinations.
There is no charge for employees and volunteers to get the shots, say MCMC officials.
According to an Oct. 4 directive by MCMC, workforce members, volunteers and students who do not receive the flu shot must wear a mask within six feet of a patient during the flu season, which is typically between October through May, with a peak in February.
Masks must be donned when there are two or more laboratory-confirmed, unrelated influenza cases in the county.
They must be worn until an infection prevention coordinator determines they are no longer necessary, and the requirement reinstated if flu activity picks back up.
Service providers who do get the shot are given a sticker to wear in the top left corner front of their MCMC identification badge. Medical workers who wear the sticker without getting the shot will be subject to disciplinary action, and managers will perform “spot checks” to make sure the protocol is being followed.
Staff who disagree with the protocol say that being forced to get a manmade vaccine goes against their personal philosophy of using natural remedies to ward off illness.
“I can come up with studies that say Vitamin D is more effective against influenza than a vaccine,” said a nurse.
Dr. John Cannell, founder of the Vitamin D Council, introduced the idea that a deficiency of the vitamin could be an underlaying cause of influenza.
His hypothesis became the basis of numerous studies showing that people with the lowest Vitamin D levels reported having significantly more colds or cases of the flu. The vitamin is credited with boosting immunity levels.
There are many reports, say opponents of vaccines, that getting a shot often brings on illness, something disputed by the CDC.
Government officials contend the viruses in flu shots are killed during the production of a vaccine, which means they cannot cause infection. The vaccine batches are then tested, with a group of people randomly assigned to get either the vaccine or salt water.
Still, some people feel bad after a flu shot. CDC officials claim that is caused by the immune system making antibodies to the killed viruses in the vaccine that help a person fight off the flu.
The ACIP says symptoms, in rare instances, include fever, muscle pain, and discomfort or weakness, which typically go away after a day or two.
If people do get sick after a shot, the CDC said it could be because the protection doesn’t kick in for two weeks from the time of injection, a time when a person is vulnerable. In addition, there are a number of pathogens going around in the winter months, including viruses that might not be included in the vaccine, according to the CDC.
Opponents of the flu vaccine counter that life-threatening reactions can be caused by the shot, including brain inflammation and even death.
In addition, they say the vaccine doesn’t produce the same quality and strength of antibodies that a person’s body develops after they get the flu. They say that’s why vaccines “wear off” instead of giving lifetime immunity from the very strains people are inoculated with.
“There’s no single virus that causes the flu and there is no one shot that protects against all of them,” said an MCMC nurse.
The CDC reports that vaccinations reduce the risk of illness by 40 to 60 percent among the overall populations during flu season. Opponents say the potential for complications does not make the risk worthwhile.
The issues involving vaccinations, for the flu or other illnesses, are complex and boil down to personal choice, say opponents of MCMC’s policy.
“I just want to do my job without fear or retribution or being singled out,” said one nurse. “We aren’t allowed to tell anyone about a patient’s health status, so why do we also not have the same right to privacy?”
MCMC said “although many of our staff are fortunate to enjoy excellent health, even healthy individuals can get very sick from the flu and spread disease to others” as the basis for its flu shot/masking protocol.
Getting the shot is a proactive way to avoid a potentially harmful illness that is good for you, your loved one and the people in your care, say hospital administrators.