ALBANY, N.Y. – Tens of thousands of health care workers who typically avoid flu shots are under more pressure than ever to get vaccinated as hospitals and clinics prepare for a spike in swine flu cases this fall and winter.
Roughly half of health workers skip the immunizations, raising two concerns: If doctors and nurses get sick, who will treat what could be millions of Americans reeling from seasonal or swine flu? And could infected health workers make things worse by spreading flu to patients?
New York, the first state to be hard-hit by swine flu, is requiring all health workers to get immunized against both types of flu. Other states are weighing whether to follow suit.
But shots for all health workers may not be an easy sell.
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Fewer than half of them got flu vaccinations last year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of about 1,000 workers. That includes physicians in clinics, lab technicians, respiratory therapists and home health aides. Rates are highest among doctors and nurses in hospitals – 70 percent to 80 percent, but the overall rate shows many still shun the shots.
Why? The reasons vary from safety concerns to skepticism over vaccine effectiveness.
Sandra Morales, a labor and delivery nurse in New York City, had her last flu shot 16 years ago. She says she got the flu anyway.
She says New York’s new law infringes on free-choice rights. “It’s crossing the line, and I’m opposed to that.”
Hospital workers “are at risk for being exposed to many, many diseases,” she said. “Imagine if we had to take a vaccine for everything that comes in the door.”
Morales worries she might lose her job if she refuses – it will be up to individual clinics and health centers to decide how to enforce the law. She has until Nov. 30 to get her shots.
At Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, the first U.S. hospital to require flu vaccination for staffers, employees who object must wear a face mask during flu season or possibly be fired.
Only a handful of objectors have been fired, all in the first season, 2005-06, said hospital spokeswoman Alisha Mark.