FLU SHOTS save lives, and state rules shouldn’t stand in the way of more widespread vaccination. But a lawsuit filed this week by a nurses’ union against a mandatory vaccination policy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has exposed a flaw in state regulations, which now make it unnecessarily difficult for hospitals to ensure that front-line medical workers are fully protected. The Massachusetts Nurses Association and the hospital’s management need to settle their differences. In the meantime, though, state regulators should toughen state rules to remove one needless obstacle to vaccination.
Only about 77 percent of the staff at Brigham and Women’s have flu shots, even though the hospital offers them to employees for free. That’s below other major medical institutions, and the hospital recently moved to require the shots of employees. Vaccinating doctors and nurses is especially important because of the many sick patients they see, and because of the high risk of transmitting the disease to other patients. For doctors and nurses, shots protect not only them but also public health at large; without such safeguards, hospitals can accelerate epidemics rather than stop them.
That’s the primary reason nurses are already required to get shots for measles, polio, and other infectious diseases. But state regulations contain an unusual exception for flu shots. The exact meaning of the language is disputed, but it seems to forbid hospitals from requiring staff to get the once-a-year shot. While a religious or medical exemption might be warranted, the language of the regulation requires no explanation at all. That provision has given the union grounds for its suit against the hospital’s new policy.
Of course, just because union officials have a legal leg to stand on doesn’t explain why they’ve chosen to use it. Other unionized hospitals in Massachusetts have reached near-total vaccination, and the union hasn’t offered any clear explanation why it’s digging in at Brigham and Women’s. Whichever underlying tensions may be behind the impasse are for the two sides to address on their own, outside the court system. But state regulations should not stand in the way of hospitals that seek to enact policies that protect public health.