UPMC to mandate flu shots for some employees
UPMC will order thousands of employees to get an annual flu shot starting next year, joining hospitals nationwide in a campaign to make influenza season less severe.
The Downtown-based health system announced the mandate on Friday for its clinical workers, although it wasn't clear how many of the 62,000 UPMC workers fall into the category. Senior emergency preparedness director Bill Smith called them “a pretty high percentage” but said UPMC executives “don't want to be heavy-handed.”
“It's patient safety, but it's also employee safety and population health,” said David A. Nace, a flu programs director at UPMC. He said doctors expect the policy will help reduce flu rates in Pennsylvania by making health care facilities less of a venue for spreading flu viruses.
State health officials recorded 26,163 flu cases and 101 flu-related deaths in the 2013-14 fall-through-spring season.
Still, the vaccination order rankles some critics as a violation of individual liberties. The Maryland-based American Nurses Association opposes making flu shots a condition of employment.
“While ANA urges all registered nurses to get the seasonal influenza vaccine, we defend the right of nurses to make their own health care choices, in cases where the mandate comes from an employer,” the professional association said in a statement.
UPMC officials didn't know how they might enforce the rule or impose punishment. UPMC will provide shots to employees free of charge, Smith said.
Exemptions will be available for workers with allergies to the vaccination or other medical concerns, according to UPMC. Those who aren't vaccinated will be required to wear a protective facial mask when they come within six feet of any other person on the job.
About 80.3 percent of UPMC hospital clinical workers got shots for the last flu season. Those who refused inoculation had to complete an online program about the risks of rejecting the shot.
That approach helped keep the clinical staff better vaccinated than most health care workers across the country. About 63 percent nationwide got the shot last season, and about 30 percent of all health care workers were mandated to do so, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Greensburg-based Excela Health offers workers and volunteers a choice similar to UPMC's plan: Get a flu shot or wear a mask at work. Its rule has been in place since 2011, when the concept started to gain momentum across the country.
About 94 percent of Excela workers get flu shots, spokeswoman Robin Jennings said.
“Our belief is that a flu prevention program paired with great hand hygiene are the best things you can do for community health,” Jennings said.
At UPMC's main rival, the North Side-based Allegheny Health Network, executives do not mandate worker flu shots except at St. Vincent Hospital in Erie, spokeswoman Stephanie Waite said. St. Vincent had the policy in place for years before it joined the network in 2013.
Among other hospitals affiliated with AHN, Canonsburg appeared to have the highest employee inoculation rate — 74 percent — in the 2012-13 flu season, state health data show.
“We strongly encourage our employees to be vaccinated and provide convenient access to free flu shots for everyone,” Waite said. She said AHN has no immediate plans to change its rules.
UPMC doctors said near-universal workforce vaccination has proven effective in other settings. Studies in the United Kingdom found nursing homes where all workers were inoculated had up to a 40 percent reduction in mortality rates, Nace said.
Already in UPMC's longterm-care facilites, Nace said, flu outbreaks have waned as more workers have gotten shots over the past several years.
“It's so important because the only means we have of preventing influenza is the vaccine,” even though it isn't 100 percent effective, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases physician at UPMC. He said about half of people who get the flu show no symptoms, which means even healthy-looking hospital workers can become unwitting carriers.
Adalja said the federal government requires health care workers to be vaccinated against hepatitis B.
The ANA, the nurses' group, said it could support a vaccination mandate if the order was made from a legal authority “so it is applied evenly, broadly, consistently and fairly.” Any such mandate should include protections for nurses who choose not to participate, the ANA argued.
“Nurses must not be discriminated against or disciplined for making such a choice,” the nurses' group said.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or email@example.com.