GOSHEN, Ind. (AP) - A northern Indiana hospital has fired eight employees who refused to get flu shots under a new policy intended to protect patients from the potentially deadly illness.
IU Health Goshen Hospital officials told its staff in September that flu shots would no longer be optional for staff, affiliated physicians, volunteers and vendors.
Hospital spokeswoman Melanie McDonald told The Elkhart Truth for a Monday story that the new requirements came as a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and other major health agencies.
McDonald said patients with compromised immune systems are at a heightened risk for illness and death from the flu and protecting them is the hospital's "top priority."
"The flu has the highest death rate of any vaccine-preventable disease, and it would be irresponsible from our perspective for health care providers to ignore that," she said.
Other regional hospitals, including Elkhart General Hospital and South Bend Memorial, recently introduced measures similar to IU Health Goshen Hospital's plan.
At Elkhart General Hospital, flu shots are now mandatory for anyone who regularly enters the hospital including all medical staff, paid employees, students, vendors and volunteers, said hospital spokeswoman Shelley Rody.
Joyce Gingerich, who was fired from her job as an oncology nurse at IU Health Goshen Hospital for refusing to get a flu shot, said she understands the hospital's position, but she couldn't get a flu shot because it would have gone against her religious beliefs, which she describes as nondenominational Christian.
"I knew that I could not compromise my personal belief system for a job," said Gingerich, who had worked at the hospital on and off since 1987. "It was really sad to leave that job. In all my years of nursing, it was my favorite."
Because IU Health Goshen Hospital staff had the option under the new policy of filing medical or religious exemptions from the vaccination, Gingerich and three others hired Alan Phillips, an attorney in North Carolina, to write their exemption recommendations.
But hospital officials rejected their exemption applications.
McDonald said a group at the hospital reviewed the exemption requests using guidelines provided by the CDC and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. She said one of the most common medical exemptions is for people with severe allergies to the vaccine, but religious exemptions are a little more complicated.
"The EEOC's guidelines specify that just because there are beliefs that are strongly held does not mean that they are protected by a religious blanket, so social, political and economic philosophies and personal preferences, those are not religious beliefs," McDonald said.
Sue Schrock, who had worked at the Goshen hospital as a hospice nurse on and off for the past 40 years, also had her exemption application rejected. She said her decision to decline the vaccination was, in part, "God-led."
Schrock said she believes people can stay healthy by taking natural vitamins, eating well and exercising, and they don't need to get a flu shot.
"I'm a pretty quiet, spiritual person, and for me, it was a big decision, but it was something that was very meaningful for me not to have in my body," she said.