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Originally published October 1, 2009 at 12:11 AM | Page modified October 6, 2009 at 4:25 PM

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Corrected version

State urged to require swine-flu shots for hospital staff

The Washington State Hospital Association is urging the state to make flu shots mandatory for health-care workers — a dramatic step the state's top health official is already rejecting as unnecessary government intrusion.

Seattle Times health reporter

The Washington State Hospital Association is urging the state to make flu shots mandatory for health-care workers — a dramatic step that the state's top health official is already rejecting as unnecessary government intrusion.

The hospital association has recommended that its full board push the State Department of Health to order statewide vaccination against seasonal and swine flu for hospital employees.

"Hospital workers who don't get vaccinated can give patients the flu," said Cassie Sauer, a spokeswoman for the hospital association. "That's not acceptable."

Sauer said a vaccine is the most effective way to stop the spread of a virus because infected people can be contagious before flu symptoms show up.

New York's health department recently ordered all health workers in the state to get flu vaccinations. But in Washington, Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the health department, said Health Secretary Mary Selecky does not believe she has the legal authority to do that. And even if she did, Moyer said vaccinations should remain voluntary. Mandating flu shots means "a government agency would require a private person to undergo a medical procedure, in many cases against their will, in order to be able to work," Moyer said. "We don't think that's appropriate."

Sauer acknowledged that individual hospitals have the right to require vaccinations for its staff. But she rejected that as a "piecemeal approach" to a public-safety issue.

The tussle over government or private mandates is unfolding as health providers gird for a possibly widespread outbreak of H1N1 virus this fall.

Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, the state's first and only hospital to require employees to get annual seasonal-flu shots or risk dismissal, is expected to announce soon if it will require workers to get vaccinated against swine flu as well.

In Tacoma, MultiCare Health System, which operates four hospitals, said that starting later this month, patient-care workers who refuse flu vaccinations must wear face masks instead.

Unionized registered nurses at Virginia Mason fought back strenuously after the hospital in 2004 made seasonal-flu shots mandatory for all employees.

The Washington State Nurses Association won two court decisions to exempt nurses from having to get flu shots even without medical or religious reasons.

But, like all non-vaccinated employees, they must wear a face mask for the duration of the flu season.

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Last year, more that 99 percent of Virginia Mason's employees got vaccinated for seasonal flu, said spokeswoman Alisha Mark, compared to about 54 percent before the policy went into effect.

Nurses and many other health-care workers have largely opposed mandatory flu shots. Anne Tan Piazza, assistant executive director of governmental affairs for the nurses union, said the union strongly urges 100 percent of its members to get vaccinated against both seasonal and swine flu.

Piazza said the nurses union would support mandatory vaccinations for health-care workers — as long as it's adopted statewide and includes protective measures.

Those measures include prohibiting discrimination against workers who opt out of getting vaccinated and making vaccinations mandatory not just for workers in hospitals, but also in nursing homes, outpatient clinics and other settings.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, chief of communicable disease control for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said health providers are belatedly recognizing the potential dangers that flu viruses pose to vulnerable patients.

"The flu hasn't been appreciated as a big concern," Duchin said. "We need to improve immunization rates in health-care workers."

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published October 1, 2009, was corrected October 6, 2009. A previous version of this story misattributed the state's response about making flu vaccinations mandatory for health-care workers to Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. It was Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the health department, who said that it would be inappropriate for the government to issue such a mandate.

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