Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital
Paul Wellman

As of November 1, all Cottage Health System employees are required to get a flu shot or wear a surgical mask for five months. The new rule — effective during the defined flu season that ends March 31 and made mandatory for all staff members this year after it was imposed on Cottage doctors in 2012 — is meant to “better protect patients from the risks associated with spread of influenza,” said Cottage spokesperson Maria Zate.

Workers can be contagious with the virus one to two days before they have any symptoms or realize they are sick, she said, explaining flu outbreaks within hospitals have been linked to low vaccination rates among health-care providers. “Flu is of particular concern in regard to how it affects the young, elderly, pregnant women, and immune-compromised,” Zate said.

Last year, Cottage had a 69 percent vaccination rate among its employees. As of November 7 this year, it has jumped to 91 percent. While the county has not created any shot/mask rules of its own, the Public Health Department has issued letters during the last two years “highly recommending” any unvaccinated workers wear masks, said spokesperson Susan Klein-Rothschild.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department recently made flu shots mandatory, Zate noted, “and hospitals in our region have adopted similar policies to protect our community.” Over at Sansum Clinic, employees aren’t required to get the shot but are asked to fill out a declination form so administrators can understand why they are refusing “as there may be valid clinical reasons why they are unable to get vaccinated,” explained Dr. Marjorie Newman, Sansum’s assistant medical director. The feedback is also used to figure out how to encourage participation. “Although many hospitals have taken a hard line on this issue by mandating 100 percent compliance,” Newman said, “ambulatory/outpatient health-care facilities have taken a more lenient approach by encouraging all staff to get vaccinated but not mandating it — at least not yet.”

While the new rule has been accepted by the majority of Cottage’s staff, at least a few of its workers have expressed concern about the mandate. Two of them contacted The Santa Barbara Independent last week. One said the flu shots contain thermosal and formaldehyde. “I don’t want that in my body,” they said. The staff members wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.

According to a recent ABC News article, 150 health-care workers in 26 states represented by attorney Alan Phillips fought mandatory vaccination policies last year. Phillips argued the rules violate civil rights and suggested the masks could be interpreted as punitive or coercive.


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