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Upping the Flu Fight: Mt. Ascutney Hospital Institutes Mandatory Shots for Workers

Alonzo Tapley, Director of Quality and Risk Management, preps receptionist Catherine Cole's arm for a flu shot at Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, Vt. on November 4, 2013. This year the hospital is requiring all employees to receive flu vaccinations. Approximately 75% of its staff have been vaccinated in the month since the program began, according to Tapley. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Alonzo Tapley, Director of Quality and Risk Management, preps receptionist Catherine Cole's arm for a flu shot at Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, Vt. on November 4, 2013. This year the hospital is requiring all employees to receive flu vaccinations. Approximately 75% of its staff have been vaccinated in the month since the program began, according to Tapley. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

Windsor — Employees at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center will have to get a flu vaccine by December or else they won’t be allowed to work there under a new policy this year.

In all, around 700 staff, volunteers and other providers will be subject to the requirement, said Alonzo Tapley, director of quality and risk management at Mt. Ascutney. Unless they have a religious objection or a medical condition that qualifies for exemption, everyone will have to get vaccinated by Dec. 1 or face the possibility of getting fired.

The move is aimed at boosting vaccination rates around the hospital in order to protect patients from getting sick, Tapley said.

“I really think the driving factor is patient safety,” Tapley said. “We don’t want to give the little old granny influenza if we can prevent it. We want to do everything we can to protect our patients.”

The Windsor hospital is the latest in the Upper Valley to make vaccination a condition of employment, which has become a trend in health care. Dartmouth-Hitchcock and New London Hospital both began mandating flu vaccines for workers in 2011 and reported near perfect compliance last year. As with Mt. Ascutney, Dartmouth-Hitchcock and New London workers can be excused if they have a religious or medical objection. This year’s deadline at Dartmouth-Hitchcock was Nov. 1 and the compliance figures were still being totaled Monday, said spokesman Mike Barwell.

Mt. Ascutney’s requirement extends to staff at the Ottauquechee Health Center in Woodstock, and also covers providers who are not employees of the hospital, but have hospital privileges, Tapley said. Anyone who has not received a flu shot by the end of the day on Dec. 1 and does not have an exemption will be suspended without pay for five days, according to a memo that went out to employees last week. Those who have not complied after the five days is up will be fired.

Increasingly, hospitals are requiring staff to be vaccinated. Many health groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend that all health care workers get vaccinated annually against influenza. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a goal to have 90 percent of health care workers receiving the flu vaccine by 2020.

Around 72 percent of health care workers got vaccinated for the 2012-13 season, an increase from 67 percent the year before and 63.5 percent in the 2010-11 season, according to the CDC. Coverage was highest in the workplaces where it was required.

There still are many hospitals that don’t have a flu vaccine mandate. Alice Peck Day in Lebanon and Valley Regional in Claremont do not require flu vaccinations for employees, though both strongly encourage it. Employees who do not get the flu shot must wear a mask.

At Valley Regional, the mask requirement applies to everyone, regardless of whether they work with patients, said hospital spokesman Rolf Olsen. That requirement is new this year, Olsen said, as previously staff did not have to wear a mask if they did not have contact with patients.

“The new masking requirement recognizes that staff are also at risk of being infected by non-vaccinated colleagues,” Olsen said in an email.

Valley Regional employees have a deadline of Dec. 1 to get vaccinated. So far, 85 percent of workers have complied and Olsen expects the rate will continue to rise in the coming weeks.

Tapley said he’d like to have 100 percent compliance this year, though figures he realistically can expect at least 98 or 99 percent. Last year, Mt. Ascutney was at 70 percent.

In the past, employees who declined to get the vaccine complained that it made them ill and also said they believed in “natural immunity.”

Catherine Cole, outpatient physical therapy secretary at Mt. Ascutney, received her flu shot Monday. She believes the new vaccine policy is a good thing, but acknowledged that her opinion is not shared by everyone. Some of her colleagues have objected to having the shot required, rather than being given a choice.

“It’s like with children,” she said. “You tell them they have to do something and they rebel.”

As manager of environmental services, Pat Titus doesn’t provide medical care to patients, but she still comes in contact with them and the public. She said the vaccine mandate would provide better protection for herself, her staff and patients.

“I just think it’s a good thing,” she said. “Anything to help.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.