MONTPELIER, Vt. — While a Vermont hospital has ordered mandatory annual influenza vaccinations for staff and volunteers, most appear to be sticking to a policy of strongly encouraging the flu shots rather than making them a requirement.
"We feel that it's another way to keep our patients safe," said Alonzo Tapley, director of quality and risk management at Mount Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, which made its mandatory policy public this week.
He said exceptions could be made in the cases of people with medical reasons or religious objections to the vaccination. So far, fewer than 10 people out of about 700 staff, volunteers and outside providers with privileges at Mount Ascutney have asked for such exemptions, Tapley said.
Most Vermont hospitals push employees and volunteers to get the shots, designed to slow the spread of the flu, but stop short of telling workers their jobs are on the line if they don't, officials said.
Mount Ascutney was following the lead of two nearby New Hampshire hospitals, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and New London Hospital, The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., reported this week.
More hospitals are considering the mandatory policy as they gear up to meet a federal standard to be in place by 2020 requiring that at least 90 percent of their workers are vaccinated against the flu.
Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont's largest hospital, has adopted a range of strategies to encourage employees to get flu shots, said Dawn LeBaron, vice president for hospital services. Those include designating special teams of nurses equipped to encourage the shots and then deliver on the spot.
"They show up at staff meetings, bring their little bottles into a staff meeting and say 'OK, everybody, roll up your sleeves," LeBaron said with a laugh.
She said about 71 percent of Fletcher Allen Employees got flu shots last year, with a goal of 73 percent this year. National figures show 49 percent of the general American public get flu shots, she added.
Fletcher Allen and Gifford Medical Center in Randolph are among those hospitals that ask employees who won't get vaccinated to wear a mask when caring for patients.
"You can choose not to get the flu shot for whatever reason," said Dr. Josh Plavin, medical director of Gifford Health Care, adding that for employees who choose not to get the shot "we mandate that while taking care of patients you have to wear a mask whether you have (flu) symptoms or not."
Plavin said the masks were an alternative safety measure, rather than an intentional cause of embarrassment or physical discomfort. "We don't really want to scarlet letter people. It's just there are two ways to (reduce flu risk)," he said.
Flu shots are not universally effective, said Monica Urquhart, employee health nurse at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. But hers is among the institutions that strongly encourage them, making them free and convenient for employees, she said.
"The more people we get immunized, the greater public immunity we'll have," Urquhart said.