During 2003-2004, 54% of Virginia Mason Medical Center employees were vaccinated against flu. Six years later, that rate more than doubled (to 98.9%) due to the first mandatory healthcare worker vaccination program in the U.S.
Despite increasing healthcare worker flu vaccination rates, these programs remain controversial. The unionized nurses at Virginia Mason successfully filed a complaint against the hospital, claiming the mandatory program should have been included in the bargaining agreement.
Last October, New York State Judge Thomas MacNamara issued a restraining order which halted implementation of a mandatory vaccination program for healthcare workers in the state.
To many people, healthcare workers resisting flu vaccination makes as much sense as doctors refusing to wash hands between patients. “Low healthcare worker influenza vaccination rates can no longer be tolerated, because our patients and our coworkers are at risk,” declare Dr. Thomas Talbot and Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, describing the need for mandatory vaccination programs.
And Arthur Caplan opines, “If you can get close to 100 percent vaccination rates you can cut patient death rates from flu by 40 percent.”
For those against mandatory vaccination programs for healthcare workers, the primary concerns are worker rights and civil rights. To those in support of these programs, saving patient lives is paramount.
If Virginia Mason’s program is any indication, there is little question that mandatory healthcare worker vaccination programs can be successful if implemented correctly. What is in question is whether these programs will remain hamstrung by legal challenges indefinitely.