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Keep that thing away from me

Local hospitals encourage employees to get vaccinated

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- THANKS BUT NO THANKS:  In 2008-09, 11 percent of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center employees refused a flu vaccination, followed by 19.8 percent at Twin Cities Memorial Hospital, 20.7 percent at French Hospital Medical Center, and 28.6 percent at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital. All have since beefed up their vaccination rates. -
  • THANKS BUT NO THANKS: In 2008-09, 11 percent of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center employees refused a flu vaccination, followed by 19.8 percent at Twin Cities Memorial Hospital, 20.7 percent at French Hospital Medical Center, and 28.6 percent at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital. All have since beefed up their vaccination rates.

On Dec. 3, Megan Maloney, a spokeswoman for French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, sent a fairly bizarre fact sheet to hospital employees. It was chock full of useful information and tidbits on the flu vaccine provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fact: Influenza is the No. 1 world-wide vaccine preventable disease.

Myth: The flu vaccine can cause the flu.

But that’s not the weird part. What’s weird is the intended audience for the facts, namely hospital employees. Maloney was aiming to entice them to get a vaccine.

Other hospitals have been more forceful. Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, for example, gave its employees a choice: Get the vaccine or get the mask.

“There are certain people who would not want to take a flu shot for religious reasons, health reasons,” said Ron Yukelson, a Sierra Vista spokesman.

Some employees at Sierra Vista and other area hospitals worry the shot will give them the flu, or complain they had a bad reaction in the past. Others simply don’t see the point because they’re healthy and have never caught the flu despite working in a hospital setting for several years.

So Sierra Vista, one of about 25 Tenet Healthcare Corporation hospitals in California, created a policy to get more of its employees vaccinated. Under the policy, all hospital employees must either get a shot or wear a surgical mask to prevent an outbreak in the hospital. Employees who work in an intensive care unit must also be vaccinated for pertussis—remember whooping cough?—or hide their breath behind a mask.

Though most employees chose to get stuck, a small segment have chosen the mask, which they have to wear from October through March.

“Last year, we really made a concerted effort to vaccinate as many employees as possible,” Yukelson said.

Ostensibly, it worked. Before implementing the policy, about 79 percent of Sierra Vista’s employees were vaccinated. This year about 96 percent of employees agreed to the needle.

A fellow Tenet hospital, Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, also implemented the policy with success. Spokesman Jason Chang said 94 percent of the hospital’s roughly 500 employees are up to date on their shots.

But the effort hasn’t gone over entirely smoothly. Bill Davis, a representative of the Service Employees’ International Union representing about 275 non-medical Sierra Vista employees, said some members have complained they have to wear a mask.

“This was a topic that was discussed in negotiations,” he said. The union’s current contract expires in March 2011.

Despite the complaints, no one has filed a formal grievance, Davis said.

Due to their shot-or-mask policy, Sierra Vista and Twin Cities may be among the most coercive hospitals in SLO County when it comes to vaccinations, but other hospitals are also encouraging employees to get pricked.

Administrators at French Hospital toyed with the idea of a formal policy similar to the one Tenet implemented, but ultimately decided not to force the issue. Maloney, the hospital spokeswoman, said the plan has been more of a polite nudging: “We have a nurse that walks around and says, ‘Have you gotten your vaccine?’”

   The goal is to get 99 percent of the hospital’s 521 employees vaccinated this year. So far the hospital has cornered 98 percent to either get a vaccination or decline. A “significant number” have been vaccinated, Maloney said.

At Arroyo Grande Community Hospital (which, like French, is owned by Catholic Healthcare West) administrators encouraged employees to either get vaccinated or sign a form stating that they wouldn’t. In some cases, the hospital offered outright bribes: Any employee who got a shot, signed a form, or got a friend to do the same, was awarded a ticket that later went to a raffle for a Kindle book-reader and other prizes.

“We’re trying very hard to get them to get a shot,” said hospital spokeswoman Anna Scott, “but if they don’t, they have that right.”

Scott said the hospital has been able to snag all its employees and get them vaccinated or to formally decline. Like French, the goal is to have 99 percent of employees vaccinated; as of press time, 82 percent received a shot.

Indeed, there has been a longtime national push to vaccinate hospital employees. California stepped up the pace a bit with 2008’s Senate Bill 739, which required hospitals to offer employees vaccinations as well as report what percentage received them and who declined.

A report released in September by the California Department of Public Health found that vaccination rates are generally at less than 45 percent nationally. And the target for this year doesn’t seem too lofty at 60 percent.

That report found the Central Coast to have one of the higher percentages of vaccinated employees in the 2008-09 fiscal year, falling behind only the Bay Area and Sacramento Metro region. When compared to other areas, SLO County hospitals also typically fell on the lower end of employees who refused to get shot.

“I got a flu shot,” Scott said. “I hate them.”

News Editor Colin Rigley is OK with shots but terrified of mountain lions. Stick him at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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