Essentia Health has fired about 50 employees because they refused to get flu shots.
The health care provider set a Monday deadline for employees to get flu shots or receive an exemption for medical or religious reasons.
Chief of patient quality and safety, Dr. Rajesh Prabhu said Essentia's mandatory approach came down to two things, a desire to increase patient safety and an understanding that Essentia's 82 percent flu vaccination rate from 2016 wasn't going to change voluntarily.
"Purely voluntary or more education doesn't get you those high levels of immunization compliance and as you know other states, other health care organizations have done the same thing we have," he said.
Since September, Essentia has told employees, volunteers, students and vendors they have three options: get the flu shot, get an approved religious or medical exemption, or leave Essentia.
As of Tuesday, Dr. Prabhu said 99.5 percent of employees have chosen the first two options, but fifty so far have been terminated with more left waiting to hear back on their exemptions.
Minnesota Nurses Association Duluth chair Steve Strand said with so many employees in that limbo, his union doesn't know how many members may have lost their jobs just yet.
"We believe that they will be denying some of those, and then those individuals may end up terminated also," he said.
But Strand said the MNA does intend to fight any terminations for a policy they say is unnecessarily intrusive and may not even be effective. He said if Essentia had negotiated with his nurses before implementing the policy they would have suggested a mulch-tiered approach that included a voluntary policy and stricter hygiene practices. He cited CDC research showing this year's vaccine is expected to be 60 percent effective against the flu.
"The flu shot isn't a be all end all it only has a certain efficacy," Strand said.
Essentia stands by its mandatory policy and Dr. Prabhu maintains, this is what it takes to keep patients and fellow workers safe from potential infections this flu season.
"People may debate oh how effective that is but based on what the level of evidence is and what our peers are doing, we thought this was the best way to protect our patients," he said.
Since the policy was announced a number of unions have spoke out against it.
United Steelworkers filed an injunction to stop the policy in October but a federal judge denied the motion on Nov. 9. According to court documents, Essentia is moving to dismiss the USW claims and the two will meet in a hearing on Jan. 31.
AFSCME and MNA both filed unfair labor practice claims on behalf of their employees claiming Essentia failed to negotiate with union members before establishing and enforcing the mandatory policy.
The unions said they will fight any terminations their members face, but acknowledge it could be months before a judge decides if anyone can get their jobs back.