By Chuck Lindell
The provision, which can include everyone from housekeepers to doctors, is intended to protect patients from exposure to preventable diseases, particularly the flu.
"It's a patient-safety issue," said Denise Rose with the Texas Hospital Association, which supports the requirement. "If someone is in a room with a patient who's very ill or whose immune system is compromised, they should be vaccinated."
Studies have shown that hospitals with higher vaccination rates among workers have lower patient mortality rates, and organizations including the American College of Physicians have said that health workers have an ethical obligation to immunize.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all health care workers receive annual flu shots, but CDC surveys in 2006 and 2008 found less than half had received the influenza vaccine. The agency also recommends that health workers be immunized against chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and whooping cough.
In the Austin area, all employees in the Seton Healthcare Family's 10 hospitals must get flu shots; the seven St. David's HealthCare hospitals require the vaccine for all employees who work in patient areas or come in contact with patients. Both hospital systems require unvaccinated employees to wear a surgical mask during flu season, roughly November through May, when dealing with patients.
The proposed state rule — included in Senate Bill 7, the special session's omnibus health care measure — would let hospitals determine which immunizations to require and which employees to include in the policy.
Employees could opt out of receiving shots for certain medical reasons, but they would have to follow procedures — such as wearing masks and gloves — to protect patients from potential exposure.
In addition, hospitals could include exemptions for reasons of conscience or religious beliefs.
"We cannot have our colleagues, co-workers and health care workers potentially carrying a deadly infectious disease that they can transmit to others," Dr. Erica Swegler, with the Texas Medical Association, told a House committee in May.
Opposition has come from vaccine opponents who say immunizations carry a health risk.
"We think it goes too far for government to say that in order to keep your job you have to take this injection," said Dawn Richardson with Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education.
A bigger concern should be the growing number of antibiotic-resistant infections in hospital patients, Richardson said. "This is not such a big problem that you can justify trampling on peoples' rights to have control over what happens to their bodies."
The requirement for hospital vaccination policies, however, enjoys wide support from Texas medical organizations and in the Legislature. Both chambers approved the requirement in the just-concluded regular session, though time ran out before final passage.
Nobody spoke against the immunization proposal during committee hearings Thursday and Friday on the omnibus health care bill, approved unanimously Friday by the Senate. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to approve the bill today, with a House vote expected early next week.
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