It's not illegal for health care workers to refuse immunizations

It's not illegal for health care workers to refuse immunizations »Play Video
Ken Cole is immunized against whooping cough Tuesday at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash.

VANCOUVER, Wash. - Health care workers in Washington and Oregon are not required to be vaccinated against whooping cough or any other diseases.

In Oregon there's even a law that's been in place for more than 20 years expressly prohibiting a hospital from requiring workers to be immunized. But most people in health care choose to get immunized anyway.

Both Oregon and Washington leave immunization requirements for employees up to the individual hospitals and clinics. For instance, in Clark County, where health officers have been dealing with the whooping cough outbreak, PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center has vaccinated more than 30 percent of its employees against whooping cough. Their goal is 50 percent by the end of summer.

More than 90 percent of PeaceHealth employees were vaccinated this year against the flu. The hospital keeps close track of employees who decline vaccinations for a half dozen diseases.

"Let's say that we know that they're not immune in measles, they may sign a declination, but if we have a measles outbreak, or a measles situation in this hospital system or in our community that may have a patient entering our hospital, those employees will be suspended from work on their own time and at their own rate of pay," said Sara Perkins with PeaceHealth.

Other hospital systems in the metro area all have similar policies. They all strongly encourage employees to be vaccinated against things like mumps, measles and chicken pox. Or they are required to sign a statement saying they refuse the vaccine.

Many people refuse vaccines for religious reasons.

Officials at OHSU and Legacy Health Systems say their employees are required to have several vaccinations but in some cases the employees can say no.

In Oregon, the law backs those employees up: "A worker shall not be required as a condition of work to be immunized," according to ORS 433.416.

In a recent survey, 69 percent of Oregon hospital workers were vaccinated for the flu and Washington led the nation with 86 percent immunized.

But health officials say those rates are below the levels needed to prevent a flu outbreak.

"It's a hard thing when you have an employee who feels really strongly against having something done, to convince them it's the right thing, often times they will, because they don't want to wear the mask," Perkins said.

At PeaceHealth, employees who refuse the flu vaccine have to wear a mask around patients during flu season.

In Oregon a health care advisory group is studying whether the state should require health care workers to be vaccinated against the flu. That group is supposed to report to the Legislature in September.