Proposed Bill Wants Healthcare Workers to Get Flu Shots

Andrew Kitchenman | February 4, 2013 | Health Care
Employees can opt out, but facilities would have to deliver data on how many rolled up their sleeves and how many took a pass

Workers at hospitals, nursing homes, and home healthcare agencies would either have to receive flu shots or sign statements declining the vaccination, under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

A similar bill was ratified by the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.

The new bill (S-1464) would also require these facilities to provide the state with information on how many employees did or didn’t get a flu shot.

Supporters of the measure argue that it is a reasonable step to protect those populations most at risk of developing serious complications from the flu.

“Unless there is a medical reason or some other legitimate reason, all healthcare workers should be immunized so that they don’t affect the patients they serve,” said Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), a bill sponsor. A wide range of public health advocates and providers supports the bill.

The bill also would require healthcare facilities to inform workers about the shot. “They should be encouraged to make sure they get their vaccination,” Vitale said.

The step comes during one of the most severe flu seasons in recent years.

While healthcare workers outpace the general population in flu vaccination rates, coverage is far from universal. In 2011-2012, 76.9 percent of healthcare workers in hospitals and 52.4 percent in long-term care facilities were vaccinated, according to a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

A similar bill received bipartisan support and was backed by a wide range of healthcare advocates in January 2012. However, it received a pocket veto from Christie.

While governors normally don’t explain pocket vetoes — which occur whenever a governor doesn’t sign a bill passed at the end of a legislative session — Christie decided to elaborate on his decision. He wrote that the change deserved more scrutiny, would burden healthcare facilities, and interfered with workers’ decisions.

“The specter of such intrusive oversight of personal medical choices is inconsistent with basic notions of individual decision making, and should not be lightly adopted as State policy,” Christie wrote.

Activists opposed to mandatory vaccinations resist the measure.

Several healthcare employers have instituted mandatory vaccinations, according to the Immunization Action Coalition, a pro-immunization organization. The state Department of Health also has urged healthcare workers to get the vaccine.

Before each flu season begins, the federal government approves a vaccine designed to protect against three strains of the virus. While this means that a shot can only prevent a certain percentage of cases, the CDC has found that this year’s vaccine is safe and effective. In recent decades, the estimated number of deaths caused by the flu has ranged from 3,000 to 49,000, according to the CDC.

Bill supporter Drew A. Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Public Health Institute, said hospitals should be doing everything possible to prevent workers from spreading the flu.

“The average person has a right to know that they’re at risk when they go to the hospital because a significant percentage of workers have not been vaccinated for influenza,” said Harris, whose organization advocates for increased immunization.

“The people at hospitals are the most vulnerable members of our society. We really do have an obligation to protect them,“ Harris added.

Sue Collins, cofounder of the New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination, said the bill isn’t needed because healthcare workers can already choose to get the vaccine. She noted that the vaccine can have harmful side effects.

“Putting pressure on healthcare workers for this vaccine, which might be harmful to their health, is not the right idea,” she said, adding that some people who die from the flu have had flu shots. “How do we know there’s not a correlation?”

She expressed concerns with both forms of the vaccine: flu shots, which can include a mercury-based preservative, and nasal sprays, which include small amounts of live virus. She also said that having the state require flu shots reduces the liability of vaccine makers. “ It’s a dream market if you’re the person making that product,” she said, adding that more testing of the vaccines should be done.

One group that is convinced of the bill’s benefits is the state’s health insurers. New Jersey Association of Health Plans president Wardell Sanders said insurers’ medical directors believe strongly in increasing healthcare workers’ immunization rates.

“The transmission of influenza in the healthcare setting is a substantial safety concern that places patients — often already sick, elderly, or otherwise with low immunity — healthcare personnel and other facility staff at risk,” Sanders said.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill today. The Assembly version of the bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), was released by the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee in February 2012.