Flu vaccine mandate for health workers brings out opponents, including nurses, to supervisors meeting

David Benda Redding Record SearchlightPublished 9:11 PM EDT Sep 22, 2020A mandatory requirement for health wor

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A mandatory requirement for health workers to get the flu vaccine this year came under fire at Tuesday’s Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting.

A host of public speakers, including some nurses, said the health order is unconstitutional and it takes away their right to choose between a mask or the vaccine, which has been the case in prior years.

Some who spoke also believe the mandate is a precursor to an order for them to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

A registered nurse told supervisors that workers who refuse to get the vaccine could lose their jobs and that will result in a shortage of health care workers, before yelling, “We will strike.”

“I am pro vaccine, but more important, I am pro-choice,” an emergency room nurse said.

County Health Officer Dr. Karen Ramstrom said we are in the middle of a global pandemic and this order will provide extra protection for health workers and patients.

“It’s a matter of maximizing our influenza vaccination and this year where we have, in addition to our normal respiratory viruses that can happen during flu season, we have COVID-19,” Ramstrom said after Tuesday’s meeting. “And the vaccination, on top of universal masking, is going to give us extra protection.”

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The mandate will stay in place for now, but some supervisors did voice concerns and asked Ramstrom to return with a progress report.

The flu vaccine order was released last Thursday.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic it remains a top priority for HCWs (heath care workers) to be vaccinated. The overlap in symptoms of these diseases accompanied by the lack of effective treatment for COVID- 19 requires additional public health intervention to prevent illness and alleviate stress on our health care system,” Ramstrom wrote.

The order is for all health workers who are unable to provide an accepted medical exemption signed by a physician.

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District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh said he is against the mandate.

“The idea of requiring it because of what might and what could be doesn’t sit well with me and I still believe it should be retracted as written and I have no problem if it’s written like it was last year where the option (to wear a mask) was there,” Baugh said.

Both Supervisors Leonard Moty and Joe Chimenti said the mandate makes sense, but they told Ramstrom that they would like to see more of the onus placed on health care employers.

“I do have a concern that this is mandated by us,” said Chimenti, who represents District 1.

Ramstrom said health officials have been talking to hospitals and large clinics.

“This order is implemented within their own policies, so I am open to having a conversation with them so we can figure out what’s going to actually protect the health care workers and their facilities in the best way possible,” she said.

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Mercy Medical Center spokeswoman Allison Hendrickson said they require employees to get the flu vaccine unless they have an approved medical exemption, as ordered by public health.

Lynnann Foster, spokeswoman at Shasta Regional Medical Center, said in previous flu seasons they have asked employees to get a flu shot, and if they opted out, they had to wear a mask.

"With the new guidelines put out by Health and Human Services, ALL employees will be required to get the flu shot as well as, wear a mask at all times," Foster said in an email to the Record Searchlight, adding that those with an approved medical exemption must still wear a mask.

As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus crossed the 200,000 threshold Tuesday and cases locally have surged, Mary Rickert, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said this is not the time for the community to let its guard down.

Rickert reiterated her confidence in the county health department’s handling of the coronavirus and steps it has taken to slow the spread.

“I ask please everyone to please focus on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommendations of social distancing, wear a mask if you can and wash your hands frequently,” Rickert said. “Please take special care of those at high risk. Shasta County has had good results for most part since this pandemic appeared and with some additional efforts we can tamp down the increase in numbers.”

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The county has reported 87 cases over the last week, and 15 new cases were confirmed Tuesday by health officials. Fourteen people have died since the pandemic started last spring.

David Benda covers business, development and anything else that comes up for the USA TODAY Network in Redding. He also writes the weekly "Buzz on the Street" column. He’s part of a team of dedicated reporters that investigate wrongdoing, cover breaking news and tell other stories about your community. Reach him on Twitter @DavidBenda_RS or by phone at 1-530-225-8219. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today.

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