CPC is proud to support SB 1318, an important piece of legislation that would get more Californians vaccinated against the flu The Sacramento Bee
April 26, 2012
State Sen. Lois Wolk wants to encourage – not require – that
health care workers get annual flu vaccinations if they come into
contact with patients in hospitals.
No right-thinking person could possibly oppose her legislation.
But in our dysfunctional Capitol, public health has become a
contested issue. Too often, lobbyists place the interests of the
organizations they represent ahead of what’s best for the rest of
Wolk’s main opposition doesn’t come from conservatives who want
nothing to do with government. It comes from unions, specifically
those that represent nurses and health care workers.
Bonnie Castillo, the California Nurses Association’s chief
lobbyist, made a point of telling me that the union “highly
recommends that all nurses receive vaccinations.”
But Castillo says Wolk’s bill steps on workers’ rights, or at
least bargaining rights, by requiring that health care workers
wear surgical masks if they refuse to get flu shots.
In her view, there are many reasons not to wear masks. They’re
uncomfortable to wear. They might scare patients who might why
the nurse is wearing one. Being required to wear a mask is like a
“Scarlet Letter,” Castillo said.
“What’s really problematic is if you’re punitive and require
nurses to wear a Scarlet Letter, which divulges private health
information,” Castillo said. To which Wolk replied that Nathaniel
Hawthorne would be insulted that the title of his great
19th-century novel had been so badly mangled and misused.
“They should be embarrassed,” the Davis Democrat said.
In a concession to labor, California public health authorities
already offer health care workers a form in which they can check
off reasons why they are refusing vaccination.
They can check a box that says they have a religious objection.
They can check the box that says they decline to state a reason
why they are declining. Really?
Or they can check the box that says they “do not like needles.”
I’m not a brave guy, as the nurse who gave me my flu shot can
attest. But you have to wonder why someone would go into health
care if he or she dislikes needles.
Organized labor seeks to turn vaccinations into a collective
bargaining issue. But rank-and-file viruses will infect you, no
matter which side you are on.
More than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized for influenza each
year and 36,000 people die, the Centers for Disease Control and
Flu is especially a problem in hospitals, where many patients are
frail, elderly, very young or have suppressed immune systems.
Hospital-acquired flu outbreaks have occurred regularly during
the past 30 years in several states including California, and in
numerous countries including Canada. New York documented 1,153
flu outbreaks between 2001 and 2006.
“Health care workers who have direct contact with patients are
the primary source of infectious disease outbreaks in health care
facilities,” a 2011 study by George Washington University School
of Public Health said.
California’s stated goal is to get a 90 percent flu vaccination
rate among health care workers. To encourage it, the Legislature
in 2006 authorized free flu shots for all hospital workers. But a
report issued last fall by the California Department of Public
Health showed that only 60 percent of hospital workers receive
Some counties and hospitals are acting on their own. The San
Francisco public health officer ordered that all health care
workers follow the prescription in Wolk’s bill by getting
vaccinated or wearing masks. Sacramento County has done the same.
Vaccination rates soared immediately.
Wolk’s bill faces a vote today in the Senate labor committee,
after it eked out of the Senate Health Committee last week. Sen.
Ed Hernandez, a Southern California Democrat, the Health
Committee chairman and an optometrist who ought to know better,
displayed his profile in courage by not voting. The bill, SB
1318, would have died, except that Republicans saw an opportunity
to poke their nemesis, organized labor, and voted for it.
Not that Republicans seem to care all that much about
vaccinations. Assembly Republicans led by Health Committee Vice
Chairman Dan Logue last week saw an opportunity to ingratiate
themselves with parents who fear vaccinations for their children
and voted against a similar bill by Assemblyman Richard Pan,
Under Pan’s bill, physicians would have to sign forms attesting
that they had described risks and benefits of vaccinations to
parents who refuse to have their children immunized before
entering public schools.
The argument against vaccinations, in essence, is that an
individual’s right or a union’s right takes precedence over
society’s interest in public health. Public health has become a
partisan issue, and that’s not good.