They didn’t want a flu shot. It cost them their jobs.

A Minnesota hospital has fired about 50 workers who refused to get flu shots and whose requests for exemptions to the mandate were denied.
A Minnesota hospital has fired about 50 workers who refused to get flu shots and whose requests for exemptions to the mandate were denied. AP

The hospital gave them an ultimatum: Get a flu shot, or you’re fired.

On Monday, Essentia Health — a chain of hospitals and clinics across the upper Midwest — followed through on that threat, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The health system headquartered in Duluth, Minn., fired about 50 workers who refused to comply with the system-wide requirement that they get a flu shot, or who failed to meet the company’s criteria for receiving a medical or religious exemption.

“We did not want this to occur,” Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, chief patient quality and safety officer at Essentia, told WDIO. “That was why we had this major education effort on why the flu vaccine was important.”

Monday was the deadline for Essentia’s nearly 15,000 employees in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Idaho to either get vaccinated or get an exemption, Minnesota Public Radio reports. Ultimately, 99 percent of its workforce got the vaccination.

“That’s my choice, and they’re taking away my choice, to either receive or to take an injection into my body that I do not want,” Paula Bullyan, a certified surgical technologist who objected to the mandatory vaccine, told Minnesota Public Radio.

Anyone over 6 months should get the flu vaccine to ward off a virus that impacts hundreds of thousands of Americans each year, and leads to anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a study published earlier this year in the journal PLOS One found that some of the research the health care industry has used to justify mandatory flu shot policies may be flawed or overstated, according to Stat News, a health publication.

“I take it myself,” Dr. Gaston De Serres, the lead author of the study, said of the flu shot. “The reason why I do that is I continue to have the impression that it could work. But it’s one thing to say: ‘OK, on a voluntary basis, you get the vaccine despite all its weaknesses,’ and it’s another thing to say, ‘If you don’t get it, you get fired.’ ”

That’s not to imply that flu vaccinations don’t work, Stat reports – just that previous studies on the benefits of mandatory vaccination may have had methodological problems, according to the new study’s authors.

“I think the bottom line of our paper is to say there is no valid scientific evidence, even now, underpinning enforced health care worker immunizations,” De Serres told Stat.

Before now, Essentia’s policy had been to voluntarily ask its employees to vaccinate themselves against the flu virus each year, and about 70 percent of Essentia staff ended up getting the shot, MPR reports. But then, a few years ago, the health center upped its flu shot compliance to 82 percent by offering flu shots to everyone unless they proactively decided they didn’t want one.

Now, though, Essentia is requiring it – not just to protect employees, it says, but to protect patients.

“We are taking care of patients who have certain medical conditions that put them at higher risk if they catch influenza while hospitalized,” Prabhu, the Essentia safety officer, told MPR. “Patients do acquire influenza while hospitalized, we had several cases last season across Essentia.”

Around the country, there are 18 states that require all health care workers to get flu shots, the Star-Tribune reports — but Minnesota isn’t one of those states. That’s left some Essentia workers pushing back against the policy because they say it represents overreach on the part of their employer.

“I have no religious grounds,” Sharon Beaulieu, a 68-year-old medical records clerk at an Essentia office in West Duluth, Minn., told the Duluth News-Tribune. “I have no medical grounds.”

Another worker, a nurse, said that he objected to the policy because he faced fatigue when he received vaccinations in the armed forces before the first Gulf War.

“If nobody stands up and says, ‘Hey, this isn’t right,’ ” Scot Harvey of Chisholm, Minn., told the Star-Tribune, “then next year everybody in health care is going to have to have a flu shot, and then everybody in every job is going to have to have a flu shot.”

Harvey told the Star-Tribune that he has been fired.

The Minnesota Nurses Association, a union representing many Essentia nurses, told KMSP that it proposed a voluntary program instead of the mandatory one that Essentia is now enforcing.

“It was clear that Essentia had no intention to negotiate,” Steve Strand, co-chairman of the Minnesota Nurses Association bargaining unit in Duluth, told the News-Tribune. “We will file grievances to fight for any nurses terminated for sticking to their beliefs and contract language.”