Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Nurses protesting mandatory flu vaccinations at Children’s Hospital

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This article was just published on the blog of San Diego CityBeat

November 24, 2009 – 9:17 am — Peter Holslin

As local clinics struggle to meet the demand for swine flu vaccines, nurses at Rady Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa are challenging a new policy that mandates vaccinations for all employees.

On Friday, the nurses union United Nurses of Children’s Hospital filed a complaint in U.S. District Court alleging that the hospital violated the union’s collective-bargaining agreement by unilaterally implementing a policy that violates California and federal law.

Annual flu immunization “is a condition of hire and retention of all employees,” the hospital’s website says. According to the nurses’ filing, the policy demands that employees who decline to get an immunization identify themselves to patients by wearing masks and special green badges.

But California’s Health and Safety Code states that employees can decline a vaccination without giving any reason for the denial, and scarlet letter-style badges violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule.

Forcing nurses to choose between getting vaccinated and disclosing private medical information would cause them “irreparable harm,” the complaint reads.

In early November, the union filed a grievance when the hospital instituted the program without negotiating its terms with employees, the complaint says, but the hospital rejected the grievance. The union is asking the judge to order the hospital to put a hold on the policy and to compel arbitration.

Ben Metcalf, a spokesman for Children’s Hospital, declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing legal proceedings. But he provided this written comment:

At Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, protecting the health and safety of children is our top priority. We care for the most fragile and ill children in our community. These children are at great risk of serious complications from H1N1 influenza. That is why we are requiring all of our employees to be vaccinated against H1N1 influenza, or, if they are unable to receive the vaccine for medical reasons or are conscientious objectors, to wear a mask at all times in a work environment. As with other mandatory vaccinations, we believe the H1N1 and seasonal vaccines are critically important for the health of our patients. The management team and physicians are leading the way; many having already received the vaccines as they became available.

UNOCH did not respond to several e-mails and numerous messages left on its office voicemail seeking comment by the time this article was posted.

With concern over swine flu spreading across the country, employees at hospitals in New York, Washington, Iowa and Nevada have challenged similar vaccination policies. Two weeks ago, a District Court judge in Nevada ruled in favor of the employees union for Clark County’s Southern Hills Medical Center, LLC, and Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, LLC, putting a temporary restraining order on a policy nearly identical to the one at Children’s Hospital.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified healthcare workers, young people, pregnant women, people with chronic health problems and people who live with or care for babies as priority recipients of the H1N1 vaccine. Last Thursday, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a 4-month-old girl became the 33rd local to die of causes related to the H1N1 virus.

Demand for vaccinations in the United States is so high that the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, an international group representing working Santa Clauses, is lobbying to have Santas added to the CDC’s priority list.

But supplies are scarce—San Diego County’s website reported yesterday that county-run clinics have run out of doses.

Update: Nicole Kennelly, executive director of UNOCH, just e-mailed CityBeat a press release that says the union filed an ex parte restraining order on Monday seeking an injunction to put a stop to the policy pending arbitration. The court will set a hearing as early as Wednesday, the press release says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Rady Children’s Hospital is in La Mesa.


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