Employer mandates vaccines for 4,000 workers

Affinity Living Group, based in North Carolina, is about to become the first long-term care provider in the state to require large-scale mandatory influenza vaccinations for its more than 4,000 employees.

More than 80,000 people died from the flu in the U.S. during the 2017-2018 season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could prompt employers to boost immunization programs for the upcoming flu season.

But it isn’t just the flu that employers should be thinking about. An outbreak in measles this year, with 839 confirmed cases in 23 states so far, according to the CDC, is the worst outbreak of the virus since 1994 when there were 958 confirmed cases. Measles was previously declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000.

Affinity calls their latest measure a “major step toward safer practices.” The flu vaccine will be offered by local CVS pharmacists for each of the 120 communities it manages across six states. By mandating the flu vaccination, team members will be prevented from spreading potentially life-threatening illnesses to the older adults residing in those communities and to other employees.

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“The history has been to offer optional vaccines, but our take rate was not strong,” says Mary Raddant, vice president of human resources at Affinity. “So what we decided to do this year is, we really wanted to focus on education and debunking the myths about the risks of immunization.”

The team being formed to handle the vaccination requirements is known as the anti-flu crew, says Dr. Kevin O’Neil, chief medical officer for Affinity. One of the things they will be doing as new hires come in is questioning them about their vaccination history and have them sign a consent form with regards to the flu vaccine. The anti-flu crew will eventually morph into a broader vaccination committee — something other employers with concerns relating to this issue can consider doing at their own organizations.

The vaccines will be offered at no cost to the employee through a voucher program, the company says. Along with providing the flu shot itself, the company plans to educate Affinity staff and the broader community on the importance of receiving the flu vaccine. It also will work to remove misconceptions surrounding the perceived dangers of vaccines.

“In my mind, the greatest advance in the history of medicine has been the introduction of immunizations,” O’Neil says. “When you look at the large number of people who have been protected from serious diseases it’s a huge benefit to society — probably greater than any single medication has been.”

Although the science behind vaccination is indisputable, skeptics remain who believe the misconception that vaccines can have extreme side effects such as autism in children or even death. People also site religious reasons for not vaccinating their children, despite no religious doctrine across the major world faiths that specifically forbid vaccinations. As a result there is a growing outbreak of measles in different parts of the U.S.

Indeed, as of May 10, the U.S. CDC reported a 9.8% increase in U.S. measles cases. However, the majority of the current cases have sprung up in New York as some ultra-orthadox religious communities refuse to vaccinate school-aged children.

This may well become a legal issue for employers, O’Neil says. Organizations could continue to strongly encourage vaccinations, rather than mandate them.

“We feel at Affinity Living Group, because of the vulnerability of our population — we have folks who are 65 and older — that we have a moral obligation to protect them. They are the ones who if they do get influenza or other vaccine preventable diseases that they’re much more likely to have serious adverse consequences.”

A significant portion of the people who die from the flu each year are elderly, O’Neil says, which is why he says the company feels a moral obligation to mandate the flu vaccine. Affinity has not made other vaccinations — such as measles — mandatory for its employees, but that option isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

“We felt we should walk before we run,” O’Neil says. “Influenza kills more people in our population than any of the other vaccine preventable diseases. We felt it was best that we focus on influenza initially and then we’ll look critically at the other vaccines.”

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