By Joan Trossman Bien
When was the last time that you saw someone with smallpox? Ever? Of course not, because we conquered that hideous disease with global immunizations. Yes, there were side effects and dangerous ones for some people. But it was accepted as part of the price that a few individuals must pay so that billions of people can forever live without the fear of smallpox. Apparently, that remarkable success will never happen again.
Here in America, we have an influenza epidemic cooking and people are dying from it. For some inexplicable reason, no one keeps track of the number of adult deaths due to influenza, only child deaths which stand at 29. That number will rise as the pathology results catch up with the illness.
Hospital Administrators Dodge Decisions
Given the wildfire infectious nature of influenza, and given the fact that it has reached epidemic levels in nearly every state, and given the fact that there is something very available to substantially reduce the odds of getting the flu, why is the vaccination rate of health care workers so very low?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 60 percent of health care workers get their flu shots. In a very few states, the workers are required to get inoculated or be fired. In other jurisdictions, those who refuse the flu shot must wear a mask at all times. But most administrators and politicians with the power to declare mandatory vaccination for their health care workers do not do so. In fact, they mostly agonize over balancing the issues of public health versus individual rights. Memo to administrators: you are not the courts.
What could they be thinking? These administrators are well paid for being in the business of illness and health. They are supposed to have their priorities straight and protect the patients. Just do your jobs and insist that all health care workers and everyone who works at your facility be vaccinated, including security guards and cafeteria workers. Even volunteers who work in the gift shops.
For example, someone picks up a magazine in the gift shop for a brand new mother. The shop clerk, who has not been vaccinated and is about to come down with the flu but has not yet become symptomatic, sneezes as she handles the magazine. Those little droplets of virus remain infectious for up to eight hours. The magazine is welcomed by the patient who reads it. The patient then nurses her baby, all within a couple hours. You can guess the rest.
Jonathan Fielding, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, stated on the county website that he urges everyone to get the flu shot. However, Fielding told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he thinks it is better for each hospital to make its own decision as to whether their workers should be required to be vaccinated under the threat of losing their jobs. Fielding added since the shot is 62 percent effective, he didn’t want people to think that the vaccine is perfect.
With that freedom of choice come many bad decisions. A nurse at Downey Regional Medical Center told the Times reporter that she will not be getting vaccinated. As one who tends to postpartum mothers and their infants, an extremely high risk group for serious complications and death from the flu, the nurse explained that she had heard co-workers saying they experienced some side effects from the shot and she got scared.
Why that wasn’t nurse more afraid of the flu? Where did she get her training in transmission of infectious diseases? Inquiring minds want to know. Clearly, more training is needed.
Which brings me to everyday folks who refuse to stay home from work when they are sick. There is a movement that is getting media attention, if not actual traction, for part time workers, temporary workers, and independent contractors to be given paid sick days, just like the staff worker sitting right next to them and doing the exact same job.
The problem is the workers who do come to work sick and often highly contagious. I know of someone who recently flat out refused to go home even though her supervisor ordered her to do so because she was so sick. I guess she believed that her presence was essential to the operation of the business. I happen to know that if she never again showed up at work, few would even notice. But coming into the work place when you are that sick, you are certainly noticed.
As we all know, employers have been firing staff workers over the past decade and replacing them with temporary, part time, per diem, and independent contractors. The motive has been to save money. But these workers get no benefits and no paid sick days. They are also fully responsible for buying their own health insurance.
The staffers who remain have a fair number of sick days and health insurance. So when staffers show up sick, often the temporary workers catch their illness. But since the per diem workers can’t afford to miss a day’s pay, they then come in to work sick. All of this misery could have been avoided if only the staffer knew that coming to work sick would mean losing their job.
So why don’t employers and supervisors enact company policies that forbid any worker from coming into the workplace while sick? Especially during an epidemic? That would be in a perfect world. A world where public health meant something. A world where simply showing up at work didn’t threaten their health and their ability to earn a living. A world where people noticed that other people were affected by each others’ actions. A world where common sense was more common.
Do we really need a law to make this happen?
Or, this is a radical idea, perhaps employers could actually give non-staffers paid sick days.