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Flu shots all but ordered at UPMC

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Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
 

UPMC is telling its 63,000 employees to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot.

The largest private employer in the state stopped short of calling it a mandatory policy, but those among its 63,000 workers who don't get a flu shot will be required to complete an online program that talks about the risks of rejecting the vaccine.

“We are using the term mandatory participation,” said Bill Smith, UPMC's senior director of emergency preparedness. “Everybody has to do something. We're not requiring everyone to receive a flu shot, but you can't just sit by and do nothing.”

The online program takes about three minutes to complete and explains to workers the importance of getting vaccinated to prevent the spread of influenza, a virus that can be harmful to the elderly, pregnant women and very young children. It asks employees to give a reason why they're not getting the shot, Smith said.

UPMC workers who refuse the flu shot and fail to complete the online educational module will be subjected to disciplinary action, Smith said. As with any other policy infraction, the form of discipline will vary.

The vaccine will be provided free of charge at employee health departments through UPMC's network of 20 hospitals. Employees can choose to get the flu shot at a doctor's office.

“We're expecting some folks won't be happy about it,” he said of UPMC's either-or approach.

The American Nurses Association called it a reasonable approach. “We absolutely strongly encourage every registered nurse who comes in contact with patients that they have an ethical obligation to get vaccinated so they can protect their patients,” said Cheryl Peterson, director of nursing practice and policy for the Maryland-based association.

The nurses group, however, opposes mandatory flu shots as a condition of employment, Peterson said.

Federal health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend that all U.S. workers get a flu shot. That includes those who directly care for patients — such as nurses and technicians — and people who aren't directly involved in patient care, such as housekeepers, clerical staff, laundry workers and security officers.

About 63 percent of health care workers employed by organizations with a voluntary flu shot policy received the vaccine during the past flu season, the CDC said. The compliance rate went up to 98 percent among workers who had an employer requirement.

Slightly more than 70 percent of UPMC workers got a flu shot last year, Smith said. He expects more employees will get the shot this yearbecause of the new policy. Employees will have until mid-December to get their shot and will receive reminders through the fall.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health, which licenses hospitals and health care facilities, does not require health care workers to get flu vaccinations, said spokeswoman Holli Senior.

Excela Health, which runs hospitals in Greensburg, Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant in Westmoreland County, adopted a mandatory flu shot policy in 2011. The policy calls for workers who don't get a flu shot to wear a surgical mask when entering any Excela facilities, said spokeswoman Robin Jennings.

About 92 percent of Excela's 4,600 employees received a flu shot during the 2012-13 flu season, Jennings said. The hospital was recognized with a special award by the state health department.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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