Sunday, September 20, 2009

New York Health Care Workers Resist Flu Vaccine Rule

Defer to the experts, because, you know, they're experts, and they'll tell you vaccines are good too. No wait...

    NY Times -

    When she cleans the rooms of patients with swine flu symptoms, Jana Newton, a housekeeper at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, has to suit up for her own protection in a mask, gloves, gown and hairnet.

    But she still does not want the one thing that would give her a far better defense — a flu shot.

    “Some people’s immune system is good, like me,” Ms. Newton said. “I’ve been here five years and never been sick. Why mess with something that’s not broken?”

    She is not alone. Across the country, federal health officials say, only about 42 percent of all health care workers get an annual flu shot. That is little better than the overall national average of 33 percent and far below the 65 to 70 percent rate for the elderly.

    That’s why the emergency regulation adopted this summer by the State Health Department making all hospital, home health and hospice workers get seasonal and swine flu vaccinations was a startling and radical step.

    No other state or city health department has such a rule. Local unions reacted angrily, saying they had not been consulted.

    Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of 200 union locals, said the change was presented to them “as a done deal” on Aug. 17. His coalition is still debating suing to stop it, he said.

    The unions do not oppose vaccination “but we oppose a mandatory program,” he said. “This is: ‘You don’t get the shot, you’re fired.’ ”

    Some prominent health experts, however, were delighted.

    Dr. Julie Gerberding, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called New York’s move “a big deal.”

    She had pushed for years for mandatory vaccinations — not just to protect health care workers, she explained, but to protect their patients, who are often aged, have weakened immune systems or are bedridden after surgery, which increases pneumonia risks.

    “We tried to market the idea, to push people, to educate,” she said. “But looking back, broadly speaking, we failed. It’s time to look at a more aggressive approach.”

    By contrast, her successor, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said last month that even though he expected a surge in swine flu deaths this winter and even though C.D.C. guidelines give health care workers first priority for the new vaccine, he would not push to make vaccinations mandatory.

    “This is just not the right flu season to take this on,” said Dr. Frieden, who previously was the New York City health commissioner.

    C.D.C. experts said there was just too much confusion this year, with the logistical difficulties of getting both seasonal and swine flu vaccinations to workers and the fact that the swine flu vaccine is still being tested, to risk a fight over the issue now.

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