At flu shot deadline, hundreds of Essentia Health employees could lose jobs

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Scot Harvey, administrative rep. for Essentia, is not getting a flu shot.
Scot Harvey, administrative representative for Essentia, is one of the employees who do not plan to comply with a new company policy mandating employees get the flu shot if they wish to continue working within the health system.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

About 300 employees of Duluth-based Essentia Health could lose their jobs for refusing to comply with the company's new mandatory flu shot policy.

Monday is the deadline for the company's 15,000 employees to get the vaccine, or receive a medical or religious exemption. Essentia says 98 percent have complied.

Scot Harvey is not one of them. Harvey, who lives outside Chisholm on the Iron Range, has worked as an administrative representative at Essentia Health in Duluth for about a year. He said Essentia denied his request for a medical exemption because he missed the deadline to apply.

"I don't see how an employer can have the right to decide what I have to do to my body in order to keep a job," he said.

Essentia says the purpose of its policy isn't to get rid of employees, but to protect them, and patients.

"Because we are taking care of patients who have certain medical conditions that put them at higher risk if they catch influenza while hospitalized," said Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease physician and chief patient quality and safety officer at Essentia Health.

"Patients do acquire influenza while hospitalized, we had several cases last season across Essentia," Prabhu said. "It may not seem like many people, but for each person, it's 100 percent to them. So the goal of this is to get as many people immunized to reduce that risk for our patients."

Prabhu said the policy change is consistent with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the Minnesota Department of Health. Both agencies recommend that all health care personnel get the flu vaccine.

But both also stop short of recommending mandates for health care workers.

"When it comes to the impact of health care worker vaccinations, and the impact of a mandate, the data just aren't there, they aren't compelling enough for us to move in that direction," said state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann.

Michael Osterholm, director for the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said a recent analysis of major studies on the issue could not find any demonstrable benefit from mandatory health care worker vaccination programs.

Essentia has announced that all employees must get the flu shot.
Essentia has announced that all employees working within their health system must get the flu shot.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"Some health care workers who get vaccinated, assuming that they are protected, they may actually in fact come to work when they shouldn't be working, with fever, and chills, and actually have a false sense of security, and transmit the virus to these patients," he said.

Osterholm calls mandatory policies an "overreach" that "science does not support."

Essentia said those who have not applied for an exemption and refuse a flu shot will lose their jobs Monday. The company is still working with employees whose applications for exemption are still in the review process.

Paula Bullyan, a certified surgical technologist who's worked for Essentia in Duluth for more than 15 years, said her termination date has been extended until next Monday. She said she loves her job, and the people she works with, but she says she's still not willing to get a flu shot.

"That's my choice, and they're taking away my choice, to either receive or to take an injection into my body that I do not want," she said.

Bullyan has filed a grievance through her union, the United Steelworkers. Other unions representing Essentia workers are also filing grievances. They're seeking a policy that rewards getting flu shots, rather than making them mandatory.

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