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Essentia Health says mandatory flu shot policy for workers a success

DULUTH, Minn.—Despite facing legal challenges from three unions, Essentia Health is claiming success for its new flu shot requirement.

"What we really want to celebrate is that commitment to safety (of) a large majority of our colleagues who took action to protect our patients and community," Miranda Anderson, an Essentia spokeswoman, said on Tuesday.

The ax fell on Monday for Essentia employees who hadn't gotten an influenza vaccination, been approved for a religious or medical exemption from getting the shot or sought an exemption and were awaiting a ruling from Essentia's "exemption review committee."

Although the health system didn't have an exact number, Anderson said no more than 50 employees have lost their jobs so far for failing to comply with the policy, which was new this year.

As of Monday, more than 99.5 percent of the Essentia workforce of 13,900 had complied, said Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, the health system's patient quality and safety officer. Essentia actually has more than 14,000 employees, Anderson said, but some are on leaves of absence and not currently required to adhere to the policy.

Prabhu said he didn't know if any medical practitioners were among those fired.

Headquartered in Duluth, Essentia has hospitals and/or clinics in four states.

The policy, first announced in September, met resistance. The Minnesota Nurses Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and the United Steelworkers brought its objections to federal court. The MNA said on Monday it will file a grievance on behalf of every nurse fired because of the policy.

As of Tuesday, it wasn't certain how many nurses had been fired, MNA spokesman Rick Fuentes said.

Among employees who were fired was Susan Long of Mountain Iron, who said she had worked for the health system since 1998. Refusing to get a flu shot, Long had filed for a religious exemption but was denied, she wrote in an email.

"I view this as a complete violation of my First Amendment rights," Long wrote. "This is an example of freedom and choices being taken away."

In spite of the objections, the process went well, Prabhu contended.

"I think no other organization in the state has come close to what we've accomplished," he said. "This is all about protecting our patients from potentially avoidable influenza infections."

More than 600 health care providers nationwide have an influenza vaccination mandate, according to the Immunization Action Council, an advocacy group based in St. Paul. They include Johns Hopkins Health System in Maryland and South Dakota-based Sanford Health, which has several hospitals and clinics in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Before this year, the only Minnesota-based health providers with flu shot mandates for employees were CentraCare Health in St. Cloud, Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Hutchinson Health in Hutchinson and Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, according to the council's website.

Last year, Minnesota's vaccination rate for health workers was 81.4 percent, which ranked 44th in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentia's rate last year was 82 percent, Prabhu has said.