In what may be a sign of things to come, all workers for Lutheran Senior Services will have to have a flu shot beginning this fall if they want to keep their jobs.
The agency operates 10 senior living communities and nine affordable housing communities in Illinois and Missouri, including Westfield Manor in Belleville and Meridian Village in Glen Carbon. It will provide free flu shots for its employees at each location starting this month.
All Lutheran Senior Services employees will be expected to receive the flu vaccine by Dec. 1 as a condition of employment, according to a notice sent to workers. The organization will provide employee exemptions for medical reasons or religious beliefs.
Registered nurse Joan Devine, director of performance improvement for Lutheran Senior Services, said flu shots are the best way to prevent outbreaks of the disease that would endanger the seniors who live in the organization's facilities.
"Used along with proper sanitary practices, the flu shot is the most effective deterrent available to us to prevent outbreaks of influenza for seniors in our communities or anywhere," Devine said. "It is a vital part of our mission to take every possible precaution to protect our employees' health and the health of those we serve."
Requiring employees to get flu shots was something that started in hospitals a few years ago. Now the trend is spreading to other organizations that provide services to vulnerable segments of the population.
Each year more than 23,000 Americans die because of influenza. Of those, 90 percent are older than 65. When it comes to the flu, older adults are among the most vulnerable populations and workers need to be vaccinated, Devine said.
According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the mandatory shots are becoming more common for healthcare workers. The vast majority are going along with the program.
Loyola hospital in the Chicago area made flu shots mandatory in 2009. Since then, 15 of more than 8,000 employees opted for termination rather than getting an immunization. In recent years, a similar policy and practice has been introduced by other St. Louis area health care providers, including the three major hospital systems of BJC HealthCare, SSM Health Care and Mercy.
According to the CDC, about 63 percent of healthcare workers immunized when they aren't required to be.
While health officials said the flu shot is the best way to prevent the disease, some healthcare workers said no medical treatment is 100 percent safe and they ought to be able to decide what they put in their bodies. They have argued that if their employer can force them to do one thing, it will eventually mandate more and more.
In 2004, nurses in Washington filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after they were required to get a shot or wear a surgical mask while at work. They filed a federal lawsuit to block the mandate.
"Registered nurses understand better than anyone both the benefits as well as the side effects of the flu vaccine and must have the personal choice to decide whether or not to receive the vaccination," registered nurse Lauralee Mayorkinos, unit chair of the Washington State Nurse's Association said of the opposition. "Educating nurses and other staff about the importance of the vaccination and allowing each individual to make a decision with regards to the vaccination is what we would support,"
The courts eventually sided with workers, ruling in 2006 that employees couldn't be forced to get the shots.
Bill McShane, spokesman for Lutheran Senior Services, said so far no one has told the organization that they object to the shot mandate.
"It's pretty early in the process," McShane said. "They just started to be offered. But we don't expect it. We're not the first healthcare organization in the area to go to this or even the first skilled nursing care group."
Healthcare operations have maintained that staff members must get shots to protect patients because they're more effective than having patients get the shots themselves.
The CDC reports, because of weaker immune systems, flu shots can be less effective in older people or people with other health problems. So the best way for them to avoid the flu is to keep them from being exposed to it through hospital or nursing home staff members they come into contact with on a daily basis.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.