Karen Garloch

Flu vaccine a must, hospital tells workers

Joining a growing number of health care providers across the country, Carolinas HealthCare System will for the first time this fall require flu vaccinations for its 35,000 Charlotte-area employees.

Because Novant Health adopted the mandate last season, almost every hospital employee in Mecklenburg County now must be vaccinated against influenza.

Carolinas HealthCare, the largest health care system in the region, is offering free vaccines to employees through Nov. 28. By then, all employees must be vaccinated or get an exemption based on medical or religious reasons. Exempt employees will be required to wear masks within 6 feet of any patient during flu season.

Failure to get vaccinated “will lead to end of employment,” the hospital announced recently. The decision was made because of “growing momentum” that it’s “the best thing to do,” said Dr. James Hunter, chief medical officer for Carolinas HealthCare. Last year, 89 percent of employees got vaccinated voluntarily.

Last year, about 99 percent of Novant’s workers got vaccinated. The Winston-Salem-based system has 25,000 employees and about 10,000 physicians, students and volunteers. It owns 14 hospitals in four states, including four hospitals in the Charlotte area.

Novant gave exemptions to about 300 last year, and about 50 were terminated because they refused to get the vaccine. Novant is mandating vaccinations again this fall from Oct. 1 to Nov. 13. The year before Novant’s mandate, 82 percent of its workers got vaccinated voluntarily.

Statewide, about 90 hospitals require flu vaccinations for employees, according to the North Carolina Hospital Association, which has about 130 members.

Prior to the swine flu epidemic in 2009, only about 40 percent of U.S. health care workers got vaccinated each year. Last season, about 82 percent got vaccinated, according to Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the CDC doesn’t recommend requiring vaccinations for health care employees, Frieden encourages it. “By health care providers getting vaccinated, they’re protecting themselves, but they’re also protecting their families and they’re protecting their patients,” he said at a recent news conference.

Annually, about 200,000 people are hospitalized and about 36,000 die from influenza and its complications. The CDC recommends flu vaccine – shots or nasal mist – for everyone over 6 months old.

Frieden got his flu shot while standing in front of reporters at the news conference. “We can’t predict what this year’s flu season will be like,” he said, “but we can predict that the best way to protect yourself is to get a flu vaccination.”