State Sen. Lois Wolk wants to encourage not require that health care workers get annual flu vaccinations if they come into contact with patients in hospitals.
No right-thinking person could possibly oppose her legislation. But in our dysfunctional Capitol, public health has become a contested issue. Too often, lobbyists place the interests of the organizations they represent ahead of what's best for the rest of us.
Wolk's main opposition doesn't come from conservatives who want nothing to do with government. It comes from unions, specifically those that represent nurses and health care workers.
Bonnie Castillo, the California Nurses Association's chief lobbyist, made a point of telling me that the union "highly recommends that all nurses receive vaccinations."
But Castillo says Wolk's bill steps on workers' rights, or at least bargaining rights, by requiring that health care workers wear surgical masks if they refuse to get flu shots.
In her view, there are many reasons not to wear masks. They're uncomfortable to wear. They might scare patients who might why the nurse is wearing one. Being required to wear a mask is like a "Scarlet Letter," Castillo said.
"What's really problematic is if you're punitive and require nurses to wear a Scarlet Letter, which divulges private health information," Castillo said. To which Wolk replied that Nathaniel Hawthorne would be insulted that the title of his great 19th-century novel had been so badly mangled and misused.
"They should be embarrassed," the Davis Democrat said.
In a concession to labor, California public health authorities already offer health care workers a form in which they can check off reasons why they are refusing vaccination.
They can check a box that says they have a religious objection. OK.
They can check the box that says they decline to state a reason why they are declining. Really?
Or they can check the box that says they "do not like needles." Honest.
I'm not a brave guy, as the nurse who gave me my flu shot can attest. But you have to wonder why someone would go into health care if he or she dislikes needles.
Organized labor seeks to turn vaccinations into a collective bargaining issue. But rank-and-file viruses will infect you, no matter which side you are on.
More than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized for influenza each year and 36,000 people die, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Flu is especially a problem in hospitals, where many patients are frail, elderly, very young or have suppressed immune systems. Hospital-acquired flu outbreaks have occurred regularly during the past 30 years in several states including California, and in numerous countries including Canada. New York documented 1,153 flu outbreaks between 2001 and 2006.
"Health care workers who have direct contact with patients are the primary source of infectious disease outbreaks in health care facilities," a 2011 study by George Washington University School of Public Health said.
California's stated goal is to get a 90 percent flu vaccination rate among health care workers. To encourage it, the Legislature in 2006 authorized free flu shots for all hospital workers. But a report issued last fall by the California Department of Public Health showed that only 60 percent of hospital workers receive flu shots.
Some counties and hospitals are acting on their own. The San Francisco public health officer ordered that all health care workers follow the prescription in Wolk's bill by getting vaccinated or wearing masks. Sacramento County has done the same. Vaccination rates soared immediately.
Wolk's bill faces a vote today in the Senate labor committee, after it eked out of the Senate Health Committee last week. Sen. Ed Hernandez, a Southern California Democrat, the Health Committee chairman and an optometrist who ought to know better, displayed his profile in courage by not voting. The bill, SB 1318, would have died, except that Republicans saw an opportunity to poke their nemesis, organized labor, and voted for it.
Not that Republicans seem to care all that much about vaccinations. Assembly Republicans led by Health Committee Vice Chairman Dan Logue last week saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with parents who fear vaccinations for their children and voted against a similar bill by Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.
Under Pan's bill, physicians would have to sign forms attesting that they had described risks and benefits of vaccinations to parents who refuse to have their children immunized before entering public schools.
The argument against vaccinations, in essence, is that an individual's right or a union's right takes precedence over society's interest in public health. Public health has become a partisan issue, and that's not good.