Flu vaccine isn't the only way to fight an outbreak

Bruce Humphreys /

Published Feb 12, 2013 at 04:00AM

Daily news reports remind us that influenza season this year is serious and potentially prolonged. With that in mind, the media is focusing on the importance of the flu vaccine, including a Bulletin editorial on Jan. 17 that specifically addressed flu vaccination for health care workers and suggested that they should have no right to refuse a vaccination.

Even without mandatory vaccination policies in place, St. Charles Health System’s staff has been increasing its participation in voluntary flu vaccination over the past several years and should be congratulated on a rate that is above the state average.

As a nurse, I’ve spent my career trying to protect and improve the health of my patients, and I agree that one of the key ways to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. However, a flu shot is not the only precaution we should take.

The flu vaccine is reportedly only about 60 percent effective. It is important that we all take some common sense steps to stay healthy. These steps do include getting a flu shot, but we must also emphasize covering our coughs and sneezes, washing hands thoroughly and often, and perhaps the best way to prevent the spread of flu, staying home when sick.

The Bulletin’s editorial references Dr. Rebecca Sherer, medical director of the St. Charles infection control and prevention department, who indicates that workers at St. Charles are sent home immediately upon showing any flu symptoms. We can assume that health care workers like nurses are the first to detect their own symptoms and will choose to stay home when sick. At this point, it becomes the employer’s responsibility to ensure there are policies that support — and not penalize — a worker’s responsibility and right to stay home when sick.

We all know that the flu doesn’t just impact health care workers. In Bend — and other places around the country — many workers don’t have access to paid sick time, which almost guarantees that employees, particularly those in low-wage hourly jobs, will choose to work when ill. This results in worsening their own illnesses and endangering the health of co-workers and members of the public.

Some employers who do provide paid sick time have practices that penalize employees who are legitimately ill by requiring a waiting period of up to several days off before the employee can access his or her paid sick time, forcing that employee to use vacation time to cover the waiting period. Added to that waiting period, some have policies and practices that impose disciplinary action for using even accrued paid leave benefits too many times. Or worse yet, in some places, when workers are required to stay home on a “forced leave,” they ultimately have to take the time off uncompensated.

It would be prudent for these types of policies to be suspended for documented flu absences during a declared flu season and, perhaps, to rethink these policies altogether for other types of absences due to illness of the employee or family members in their care.

Vaccination is just one of many critical and responsible steps to prevent the flu, but it is not the only step. I would submit that nurses are extremely responsible in their health care choices and do spend a great deal of their work time exercising these preventive measures against getting — and spreading — the flu virus.

Therefore, before employers and policymakers rush toward implementing vaccination as the sole method of addressing a flu outbreak, we should remember that there are other, equally important steps they should take. These steps must include offering education, emphasizing proper hygiene and providing employees with policies that empower them to stay home without penalty when sick.

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