Nurses in particular tend to be the most reluctant to get vaccinated among health care workers, Schaffner said, citing his opinion.
"There seems to be a persistent myth that you can get flu from a flu vaccine among nurses," he said. "They subject themselves to more influenza by not being immunized, and they certainly do not participate in putting patient safety first."
In October 2011, Vanderbilt broke the world record for number of vaccines administered in an eight-hour period in an event called Flulapalooza. From 6:50 a.m. to 2:50 p.m., they vaccinated 12,647 people. By that evening, more than 14,000 people had been vaccinated, and there were no severe adverse reactions, he said.
But still, Alan Phillips, who represented several nurses at the hospital, says his clients had the right to refuse their flu shots under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination of employees. Religion is legally broad under the First Amendment, so it could include any strongly held belief, he said, adding that the belief flu shots are bad should suffice.
"If your personal beliefs are religious in nature, then they are a protected belief," Phillips said.
Phillips, who is based out of North Carolina, has made a name for himself fighting for employees' rights to get out of mandated flu shots, but he has never needed to go to court. Although he usually handles a couple dozen health care workers per year, he had 150 this fall in 25 states.
Dr. Damon Raskin, an internist with his own practice in the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, said hospitals should mandate flu vaccines as a matter of public safety. The flu can lead to complications like pneumonia and death, said Raskin, who is also affiliated with the Cliffside Malibu Addiction Rehabilitation Center.
"I think if the health care worker has some problem with religious faith then perhaps during flu season, they shouldn't do that job," Raskin said, suggesting that the worker do something administrative instead during flu season. "It's not fair to the patient. The people who are most at risk are in the hospital."