Jacqui Coveney, a registered nurse, has worked in Hartford Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for the past eleven years. She, like many other nurses around the country, was recently terminated from her job for refusing to get a flu shot.
The original flu shot policy adopted by Hartford Hospital read that it was strongly recommended that all staff get the vaccine, but it was also an option to wear a mask while working in the hospital. Then, the flu shot became mandatory for all staff including nurses, doctors, and custodial staff. The only way to keep working at the hospital without getting a flu shot was to either have a religious opposition to the vaccine or to have a signed doctor’s note stating that there was a medical reason for not receiving the shot, such as an egg allergy (eggs comprise part of the vaccine ingredients).
Ms. Coveney, unconvinced that flu vaccines are safe, refused to get the shot. “I’ve never had a flu shot. The last time I had the flu was thirteen years ago,” she explained in an interview. “And when I had it thirteen years ago, I took oscillococcinum [homeopathic sublingual pellets], which has been known to relieve flu symptoms. My flu was gone within twelve hours.”
Although the chances of contracting it are slim, Ms. Coveney is concerned about the connection between the influenza vaccine and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. “This syndrome attacks the nervous system, and people who have it usually end up in the ICU on a ventilator. It can have devastating effects; people who have it often can’t walk or move their arms. Sometimes the effects are temporary, and in more serious cases, they can be permanent,” she said. She asked her supervisor at the hospital if she could be suspended until flu season was over, and then hired back. She was told that the hospital doesn’t have the ability to do that. “What if I come down with Guillain-Barré? That won’t be any skin off your back!” she reasoned.
Ms. Coveney was terminated. As a per-diem employee at Hartford Hospital, she said she wasn’t sure if any other Hartford Hospital employees were fired for refusing to get a flu shot.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), preliminary data indicates that the flu vaccine was only about 60% effective during 2010-2011. On their website (cdc.gov), a page titled “Vaccine Side Effects (What to Expect)” lists side effects such as soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, fever (low grade), and aches, are listed. There are more side effects listed for the nasal spray, also known as LAIV or FluMist®, which is usually administered to children over two years old. Unlike the flu shot, the nasal spray flu vaccine contains live viruses. The CDC asserts that these viruses are weak and cannot cause flu illness, but it still lists side effects of the nasal spray vaccine as fever, cough, runny nose, muscle aches, headaches, sore throat, wheezing, and vomiting. The CDC also has a webpage which provides information about what the flu may cause: fever, cough, runny nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue (tiredness), and vomiting and diarrhea.
Both versions – the actual flu shot and the nasal spray vaccine – contain ingredients that many people believe to be unsafe. According to the CDC, seasonal influenza vaccines are produced on a massive scale. Some of the vaccines are produced in multi-dose vials, and these contain thimerosal – a widely used vaccine preservative that metabolizes to ethylmercury, and contains close to 50% mercury – a well-known neurotoxin – by volume. Based on the amount of mercury in a standard flu shot and according to Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, you have to weigh over 265 pounds in order for this exposure to mercury to be safe.
At some other hospitals around the country, employees still have the option of getting a flu shot or wearing a mask. However, very few hospitals require visitors to wear masks. Many hospital staff members feel that the visitors have just as much of a chance of bringing flu into the hospital as the staff.
Although Ms. Coveney would like to return to her job at Hartford Hospital, she isn’t devastated. She is now working as a hospice nurse in a home health care situation, where she’s not required to get a flu shot. “I find hospice care to be more holistic than other areas of nursing, and I like caring for the whole family in their own setting,” Ms. Coveney said. “I like helping people make peace with the past.”
Ehris Urban is a 2013 writing intern for The Mercurial. This is her first article.