Rachel Webb didn't anticipate that when she stepped on the elevator Thursday, she would hear a stranger thank her.
I appreciate you wearing a mask if you can't get the flu shot, the stranger told her.
“I come into work, I wear my mask, and take it off to eat my food, but when I'm out and about in the hospital and on the floors, I'm wearing my mask because I want to protect myself, and I want to protect everybody around me,” Webb said.
Webb is one of thousands of hospital workers in Oklahoma City who are required to either get a flu shot or wear a mask while at work.
Both the American Hospital Association and the Oklahoma Hospital Association have endorsed mandatory flu shot policies.
In July 2011, the Oklahoma Hospital Association board encouraged “hospitals to implement a mandatory patient safety policy that addresses influenza vaccination for hospital employees.”
It's also an issue that's making headlines nationwide as employees either resign or get fired for going against the policy.
News media in Missouri, Ohio and Indiana have reported hospital staff members resigning or being fired for not getting their flu shots.
Sue Schrock, a longtime nurse at an Indiana hospital, told a local newspaper that she resigned because of religious beliefs. Seven employees are no longer employed at Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital because they would not comply for the flu policy, according to the newspaper.
“I didn't want the flu shot,” Schrock told The Goshen News. “I was denied the religious exemption, and they said it was more for personal preference rather than a religious reason. They didn't accept my religious explanation. They didn't accept it because it was biblical based. I don't want it in my body, and I don't think God wants us to do that, and that's my firm stand. It's just not who I am.”
Public health risk
Hospital officials say health care workers are at a high risk of contracting the flu, a contagious respiratory illness that can lead to mild to severe illness, and in some cases, death.
Since Oklahoma's flu season started in September, eight residents have died because of the flu and another 345 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported, according to the most recent state Health Department data.
Webb, a clinical informatics analyst at Mercy, isn't against Mercy's flu shot policy.
Rather, she suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system.
Webb asked her doctor three times if she could get the flu shot, but because of the disorder, her doctor recommended she not get the flu shot.
“You have to really decide — do you want to get the illness or Guillain-Barre syndrome again?” Webb said. “And for me, I can't make that choice."
This flu season is the first time Mercy's flu shot policy has been mandatory.
Becky Payton, Mercy regional vice president of human resources, said Mercy employees must either get their flu shot or wear a mask during flu season. Mercy will also withhold an employee's next merit increase if the employee doesn't get a flu shot for any reason other than medical or religious, she said.
About 94 percent of Mercy's employees have gotten their flu shots, Payton said.
“The reason is because we want to make sure that, for public health reasons and for the safety of our patients and our co-workers, we want to do everything we can to not spread the flu,” Payton said.
Payton said Mercy's policy does not include the possibility of being fired for not getting a flu shot.
But there are hospitals in the Oklahoma City metro area that have moved in that direction.
St. Anthony Hospital's policy is that staff members must either have an annual flu shot or a waiver explaining a medical or religious reason they can't have the shot.
Hospital spokeswoman Sandra Payne said few employees have not complied with either getting vaccinated or turning in a waiver, and of those employees who were terminated, most were not full-time employees.
At Integris, employees, employed physicians and volunteers who do not get a flu shot by the first Friday in December each year are removed from work duties and placed on unpaid leave. Employees who do not get their flu shot by the fourth Friday in December each year are fired, according to the company's policy.
The Oklahoma-based hospital system added the consequence of being fired to its mandatory flu shot policy after the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
Dr. James White, Integris Health chief medical officer, said after Integris changed its policy, the health system saw an increase of employees getting their shots, with 96 percent of employees vaccinated this past year, he said.
Integris has tried in years past to increase flu vaccination rates among its 9,000 employees but wasn't successful in those efforts until it added the risk of being fired to the policy, he said.
“Despite those best efforts, we had vaccination rates in most of our facilities that never got up much more than 70 or 75 percent, and that was even when it was mandatory to comply with the policy, but it was not worded quite as rigidly,” White said.
White said a few employees at Integris have either left or been fired because of the policy.
White was one of the primary advocates of updating the flu policy to include the possibility that an employee would be terminated.
“We don't want our employees caring for our patients in their rooms the day before they may come down with flu and give our patients influenza, nor do we want them giving fellow employees influenza, nor do we want them giving visitors influenza,” White said. “So we feel like after substantial deliberation that this is the right thing to do for the right reason.”