Emory, Grady make seasonal flu shots mandatory

Grady will request that kids, adolescents not visit patients

Emory Healthcare and Grady hospitals are requiring employees to take the seasonal flu vaccine, officials said Thursday.

The new mandates reflect increasing concern that metro Atlanta is headed into a bad flu season, in which the seasonal flu could circulate along with the swine flu.

Grady officials said similar mandates could follow for health care workers to take the swine flu vaccine, which is expected to be available in mid-October.

Currently, Grady officials are “strongly urging” its health care workers — those with direct contact with patients — obtain the swine flu shot. Emory is urging all its workers to get it.

Grady also changed its visitation policy Thursday to request that no children or adolescents visit inpatients at the facility. Exceptions will be made in those instances in which the children’s visits are beneficial for the emotional well-being of a patient, hospital officials said.

Georgia and Alaska are the only two states in the country in which swine flu has become widespread, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC spokesman Joe Quimby said the agency does not know why Georgia stands out but he noted that swine flu is up throughout the Southeast, probably due to schools opening earlier than the rest of the country.

Five people have died and 192 have been hospitalized in Georgia, according to state health officials. The Georgia deaths include a 43-year-old woman in Cobb County, a 46-year-old woman in Cobb, a 63-year-old man in Lee County, a 7-year-old boy in Gilmer County and a 52-year-old woman in Clarke County.

Emory and Grady will allow exceptions on the vaccination mandate to employees for certain medical and religious reasons, officials said. Emory Healthcare includes Emory University Hospital Midtown, Emory University Hospital, Wesley Woods Hospital and the Emory Clinic.

Usually, hospital officials urge staffers to take the vaccine but don’t require it. Emory officials said about 70 percent of Emory staffers usually take the vaccine but the national average is much lower. Grady officials said about 30 percent took it last year.

Several factors led Emory officials to make taking the seasonal flu vaccine mandatory — protecting patients and providing a safe environment for workers; the fact that the seasonal flu and swine flu will be circulating at the same time; and the successful implementation of mandatory flu vaccinations in other healthcare systems.

“This is a trend that is happening more and more,” said Dr. James Steinberg, chief medical officer for Emory University Hospital Midtown and a professor of infectious disease at Emory’s school of medicine. “The question is, do we do it now or later? It’s going to be a challenge, if we have a lot of swine flu and seasonal flu at the same time.”

Grady will be providing the vaccines free to employees, said spokesman Matt Gove.

“This is for patient safety,” Gove said. “Flu can be very dangerous [to patients].”

Grady officials said that before they decide whether to make the swine flu shot mandatory, they want to monitor the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Grady also plans to offer both seasonal and swine flu shots to vulnerable patients, he said.

Grady hospital has also distributed to staff various methods to screen patients coming in for care for the flu. Visitors who show symptoms will not be allowed into patient areas, Gove said.

Will requirements stand?

“A health care employer probably could justify mandatory flu vaccinations based on the direct threat to safety posed in the patient care setting, especially for the seasonal flu vaccine,” said Howard Mavity, a labor lawyer and co-chairman of Fisher & Phillips Workplace Safety & Catastrophe Management Practice.

Piedmont Hospital is offering seasonal flu vaccines to employees on a voluntary basis. But the hospital does require that employees complete an online flu educational course.

Atlanta Medical Center will also make the seasonal flu shot available to employees but will not require it, said a hospital spokeswoman.

Also on Thursday, the CDC reported that about one in 13 U.S. swine flu deaths have been children and most of those have been of school age. In its first study of the new flu’s youngest victims, which examined deaths from April to the beginning of August, researchers found that about two-thirds of the children who died had underlying health issues.