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Calling the shots



Getting the needle isn't much fun when flu season hits, but many people think a shot will stave off fever, coughing and nausea. Others don't, so they bypass the vaccine.

But anyone who works at Memorial Hospital has no choice: Get a flu shot, or be fired. Doctors who work there, but aren't technically employed there, face suspension of their privileges.

"It's an invasion of my body," says one nurse, who's refused in the past to get a shot on philosophical grounds. "We're being bullied. ... It wasn't a condition of employment."

Nevertheless, Memorial's policy aligns with that of its new operator, University of Colorado Health, which took control under a lease finalized Oct. 1.

"We feel flu shots are an important way to protect our patients, so we do require all our employees, faculty and contractors to get a flu shot," Dan Weaver, University of Colorado Hospital media relations coordinator, says via e-mail. "Research shows that elderly and immunocompromised people are the most likely to have serious effects from the flu, and we want to keep these patients as safe as possible."

In February, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment adopted a policy requiring licensed health care facilities to report the percentage of personnel who are vaccinated. From Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 this year, 60 percent must be inoculated. Next year, it's 75 percent, and in 2014 and thereafter, 90 percent. (The rule doesn't apply to non-licensed facilities, such as doctor, dental and chiropractic offices.)

"If they don't achieve that, facilities next year must implement a mandatory policy that allows only for medical exemptions and those not vaccinated must wear masks," says Rachel Herlihy, the state Health Department's director of immunization and infections. But Herlihy says the state won't crack down and take enforcement action until 2014, at which point adherence "would be part of their annual licensing" requirements.

Besides protecting patients, vaccinations reduce workplace absenteeism, "which will reduce MH's operational costs for providing care," Memorial's policy states. The policy also requires that employees, who get the vaccine free, wear a sticker that verifies they've been immunized.

The only workers exempt are those with "severe (life-threatening) allergies to eggs or other components" of the vaccine, which must be documented by a doctor, and those who acquired Guillain-Barré Syndrome within six weeks of getting the vaccine, for which documentation also is required. Even pregnant women are required to be vaccinated. Those who do get a pass must wear masks when they're in patient areas and within three feet of patients and visitors throughout flu season.

Any Memorial employees who haven't been vaccinated by Nov. 15 will be given a written warning and 15 days to get a shot. If still noncompliant by Nov. 30, they'll be suspended for three days without pay. If not inoculated within those three days, they get walking papers.

If those required to wear masks do not wear them, they'll get a warning. A second offense could bring termination.

Several labor organizations oppose mandatory vaccination as a condition of employment, including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. But Memorial spokesman Brian Newsome adamantly defends Memorial's policy, which, he points out, echoes those of Penrose-St. Francis Health System and others around the country.

"We're not just doing this because the state tells us to. We're doing it because we think it's the right thing to do for our patients," he says. "The flu can kill you."

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