Jan. 3, 2012— -- An Indiana hospital has fired eight employees, including at least three veteran nurses, after they refused mandatory flu shots, stirring up controversy over which should come first: employee rights or patient safety. The hospital imposed mandatory vaccines, responding to rising concerns about the spread of influenza.
Ethel Hoover wore all black on her last day of work as a nurse in the critical care unit at Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital. She said she was in "mourning" because she would have been at the hospital 22 years in February, and she's only called out of work four or five times in her whole career , she said.
"This is my body. I have a right to refuse the flu vaccine," Hoover, 61, told ABCNews.com. "For 21 years, I have religiously not taken the flu vaccine, and now you're telling me that I believe in it."
More than 15,100 flu cases have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since Sept. 30, including 16 pediatric deaths. Indiana's flu activity level is considered high, according to the CDC, which last month announced that the flu season came a month earlier than usual.
Click here to read how flu has little to do with weather.
When Hoover first heard about the mandate, she said she didn't realize officials would take it so seriously. She said she filed two medical exemptions, a religious exemption and two appeals, but they were all denied. The Dec. 15 flu shot deadline came and went. Hoover's last day of employment was Dec. 21.
Fellow nurse Kacy Davis said she and her colleagues were "horrified" over Hoover's firing, calling her their "go-to" nurse and a "preceptor."
"It was a good place to work," Hoover said. "We've worked together all these years. We're like a family."
The hospital said in a statement that it implemented the mandate to promote patient safety based on recommendations from the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It announced the mandate in September. Of the hospital's 26,000 employees statewide, 95 percent complied. That means 1,300 employees did not comply, but only eight were fired.
"IU Health's top priority is the health and wellbeing of our patients," said hospital spokeswoman Whitney Ertel. "Participation in the annual Influenza Patient Safety Program is a condition of employment with IU Health for the health and safety of the patients that we serve, and is therefore required."
The CDC recommends flu shots for everyone older than six months of age. Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said hospital patients are especially vulnerable to flu complications because their bodies are already weakened.
"I cannot think of a reason for any health care professional to decline influenza immunization that's valid," said Schaffner, a former president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, adding that people with egg allergies may have to avoid the flu shot to prevent anaphylactic shock, but even that hurdle has been remedied. The Food and Drug Administration approved an egg-free vaccine in November.
Schaffner said invalid excuses to avoid the shot include being afraid of needles and simply promising to stay home when they're sick. Patients now have the option of a vaccine nasal spray if they want to avoid needles. And since flu victims become contagious before they start to feel sick, they can get patients sick even if they stay home when they have symptoms.
Over the last several years, hospitals have been moving toward mandatory vaccinations because many only have 60 percent vaccination rates, Schaffner said. He is leading an effort for a similar mandate at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.