PINEHURST — In June of this year, FirstHealth of the Carolinas adopted a new policy that requires all staff who routinely work in patient care areas to be vaccinated annually for influenza. With the onset of this year’s flu season, the effects of the policy are now being felt by FirstHealth staff.
This policy also impacts the staff at FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital in Rockingham.
The purpose of the policy is simple: To protect patients, their families, visitors, staff and the community from flu. According to Paul Jawanda, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, FirstHealth joins a rapidly growing number of hospitals and health care systems across North Carolina and the nation who have adopted a mandatory flu vaccination policy.
The implementation of the new policy to require flu vaccines follows many years of providing the flu vaccine at no charge to all FirstHealth employees, volunteers and staff, and encouraging all health care staff be immunized for the flu.
“FirstHealth, like most other health care organizations, recognizes that a voluntary vaccination program does not achieve the staff participation level that we believe is essential for patient safety,” Dr. Jawanda said. “Numerous community and academic hospitals across the country have implemented mandatory flu vaccinations to improve patient safety. Focusing on patient safety, FirstHealth has decided to implement mandatory flu vaccination.”
The new flu vaccine policy requires every FirstHealth staff member who works in a hospital building or the Hospice House or whose regular responsibilities include any patient contact to be vaccinated against the flu. Volunteers, students and others in patient care areas also follow the staff vaccination guidelines, and the medical staffs at each of the three FirstHealth hospitals voted to include physicians and mid-level providers in the mandatory vaccination policy.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. They include older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, and persons who live in facilities like nursing homes. Influenza-related deaths average 36,000 a year, and hospitalizations average 114,000 per year.
“The single best way to prevent the spread of flu is to get a flu vaccine each season,” said Jayne Lee, R.N., director of Patient Safety and Infection Control at Moore Regional Hospital. “It is especially important for health care workers to get vaccinated as they are on the front lines in the transmission of influenza.”
Although the goal is 100 percent participation, there are exceptions to the mandatory vaccination requirement, said Lee. Individuals with medical conditions such as extreme allergy to eggs or a component of the flu vaccine or a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome can be exempted, but only after providing physician documentation of the condition. Personnel with a medical exemption will be required to wear a mask while in patient care areas during flu season. As of last week, 32 staff members had been granted a medical exemption.
So far, only a few employees have indicated they would leave FirstHealth rather than have the flu shot. Volunteers who do not have a medical exemption or have not received the flu vaccine by December 31, 2012, will not be allowed to volunteer in a FirstHealth hospital, the Hospice House or in other patient care areas for the remainder of the flu season.
“We do everything we can to ensure the safety and decrease the risk of infection to our patients so that they leave the hospital healthier than when they were admitted,” said Dr. Jawanda. “Flu vaccinations for all staff to prevent the spread of flu in the hospital is one action we are taking to decrease the risk.”