CHARLOTTE, N.C. - For the first time in Charlotte, a hospital system will require health care workers to get flu vaccinations this fall.
Novant Health, the Winston-Salem-based system that owns four hospitals in Charlotte, Matthews and Huntersville, recently announced that all employees, physicians, volunteers and vendors must get vaccinated against the seasonal influenza unless they get an exemption for medical or religious reasons.
“We just think it’s the right thing to do,” said Dr. Stephen Wallenhaupt, Novant’s chief medical officer.
“It’s the appropriate time to do it ... for the safety of our patients, and for the safety of our employees and our families and the community at large.”
Without the requirement, 82 percent of Novant’s 25,000 employees got the vaccination last season, Wallenhaupt said.
That’s more than the national average of 64 percent, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that all health care personnel receive the annual vaccine.
CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said the agency has stopped short of recommending mandatory vaccination, even though some hospitals have done so.
He said some people are allergic to eggs and have good reason to avoid the vaccine.
Charlotte’s other hospital system, Carolinas HealthCare System does not require flu vaccinations for its 40,000 employees, but it does recommend that health care workers get the flu protection.
In recent years, employees who decline have been asked to sign an acknowledgement and wear a mask when in contact with patients.
Carolinas HealthCare spokesman Kevin McCarthy said a committee of medical professionals reviews flu policies each year and will make a recommendation to senior management in August.
Becoming a trend
More than 65 hospitals in North Carolina already require flu shots for employees, according to a survey of 131 members of the North Carolina Hospital Association. Among them are Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington and Mission Hospitals in Asheville.
In northern Virginia, where Novant also has hospitals, Wallenhaupt said Sentara Healthcare and Inova Health System also require employees to get annual flu vaccinations.
Wake Forest has had a mandatory flu vaccine program since 2009. A spokesman said 13,034 healthcare workers were immunized last fall, and 227 received exemptions.
An analysis of vaccination rates at Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois – one of the first U.S. medical centers to mandate flu vaccinations in 2009 – found the program did not lead to excessive voluntary termination by people who declined to be vaccinated.
In that first year, 99.2 percent of employees received the vaccine, 0.7 percent received exemptions for religious or medical reasons, and 0.1 percent refused vaccination and chose to leave.
The results have remained consistent. Last fall, 98.7 percent were vaccinated, 1.2 percent got exemptions and 0.06 percent refused and left their jobs.
A preemptive shot
In 2009, after going through the swine flu pandemic, many hospitals and medical centers began thinking more seriously about mandating flu vaccinations for employees.
Research by the CDC shows that flu vaccinations can decrease the risk of contracting the flu, reduce the severity of the flu, shorten the duration of the flu and help curtail the spread of the virus.
By getting a flu vaccination, Wallenhaupt said employees not only protect themselves from contracting the flu, but they also protect patients and others from getting the flu and avoid possible complications.
Many hospitalized patients have conditions that put them at high risk for complications and death if they become ill with influenza.
Annually, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for influenza and nearly 36,000 die as a result of the virus.
Flu shots or nasal mist vaccines, coupled with hand washing and other infection control measures, can reduce the prevalence of the virus.
Depending on the availability of the vaccine this fall, Wallenhaupt said Novant will begin vaccinating employees and others by Oct. 1 or sooner, and everyone should have been vaccinated by Nov. 15.