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Amid serious flu season, should nurses be required to get shots?

January 19, 2013 |  8:30 am

Public health officials warned Friday that the flu virus wreaking havoc elsewhere in the nation has finally arrived in California, causing widespread hospitalizations across the state.

The increase in illnesses so early could signal a worse flu season than in years past, and medical experts are urging everyone to take precautions by getting a flu shot.

But Times health writer Anna Gorman reports that only about 60% of doctors, nurses and other medical workers get the shot each year, according to a report by the California Department of Public Health. And hospital administrators are grappling with whether to compel them.

State and federal health officials said that it's important for healthcare workers to get immunized because their jobs put them in a position to spread the virus to large numbers of patients. Moreover, hospitals need them to stay well during the busy flu season.

“The flu is particularly severe, particularly deadly among folks that have underlying conditions, and these are the very folks you find in hospitals,” said Gil Chavez, deputy director of the center for infectious diseases for the California Department of Public Health.

Under state law, hospitals must offer the shot to their employees free of charge, and workers must sign a declaration if they don't want it. But no law mandates medical centers to require their staff to get vaccinated. That has led to a hodgepodge of rules around the state.

“What is happening right now is that there is an unfortunate patchwork of policies,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, spokeswoman for the California Hospital Assn., which supports a vaccination requirement for healthcare workers. “In some hospitals, patients may be … more at risk.”

Administrators have made vaccination a condition of employment at some facilities. At others, they instruct employees to get the shot or wear a mask for the entire flu season. Many simply hold education sessions on the flu vaccine — such as debunking the widespread myth that it causes the illness — and encourage staff members to get it.

Several county public health officials have taken the matter into their own hands, issuing orders that healthcare facilities must require their workers to get the vaccine. However, Los Angeles County's director of public health, Jonathan Fielding has not done so. While he urges hospitals to vaccinate their employees, he said he believes the decision should be up to individual hospitals. The vaccine, Fielding said, is 62% effective, so he said he didn't want to give the false impression that it was the perfect antidote.

Sherlyn Ocampo, a nurse who works on the medical/surgical unit at Downey Regional Medical Center, said she gets the vaccine every year because her patients are elderly, fragile and ill.

“I don't want to get sick,” she said. “I don't want to get my patients sick.”

But nurses like Darlene Andres, who spends her days caring for postpartum mothers and their newborn babies, balk. Although she urges new moms to get the flu vaccine before leaving the hospital she has not.

“I heard from a lot of co-workers on the floors that they were getting a lot of symptoms after getting the flu vaccine,” she said. “I kind of got scared.”


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Video: Downey nurses Sherlyn Ocampa and Darlene Andres explain why they do or do not get the flu shot themselves. Credit: Anna Gorman / Los Angeles Times