Flu Vaccine Mandate Sparks Rights Debate

Flu season is starting to kick in early this year across parts of the country. However, it’s the vaccine – not the illness – that is turning heads in Connecticut. There is a controversial new flu vaccine mandate coming from several hospitals and organizations across the state that has forced a few long-time employees out of work.

Wendi Comeau, an accountant with Hartford HealthCare, is one of them. She never thought her employer would try to force something into her body.

“I will not compromise my beliefs for a job,” Comeau told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters. “If I'm meant to get the flu, then I think that's God's will.”

Comeau refused to get the flu shot after Hartford HealthCare – which runs Hartford Hospital and Central Connecticut  mandated it for all their employees. That mandate kicked in December 1. Citing her Christian faith and health concerns, she applied for an exemption.

“I prefer to do things naturally, holistically,” Comeau told NBC Connecticut. “I think there are ways to avoid the flu other than getting a vaccine.”

Comeau was denied despite the fact that she is an accountant who works in a separate administrative building far from the hospitals, which include Hartford Hospital and the Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain and Southington.

“I understand that safety is a core value of the hospital and i understand we do want to keep the patients safe but i also want to keep myself safe as well,” Comeau said.

Comeau hired a lawyer and appealed the decision. Shortly after the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters contacted Hartford HealthCare regarding Comeau’s situation, her appeal was approved.

Further west in Waterbury, surgical assistant Karen McKinnon was not as lucky.

“I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm shocked,” McKinnon said.  

McKinnon has worked at Waterbury hospital for 32 years. Since she declined the flu shot last week, she has been suspended from work until December 15. She is not allowed to enter and work in the hospital, as she has as a surgical assistant for decades.

“I've never been suspended. i was never even suspended in high school,” McKinnon said with disbelief.

If McKinnon does not accept the flu shot before December 15, she will lose her job altogether.

Labor attorney Michael Harrington of Murtha Cullina LLP explains that mandates like this are legal for hospitals and other workplaces, including schools.  

“As a general matter, an employer can set up whatever requirements they need of their employees,” said Harrington.

It is “no different than sending a child to kindergarten,” Harrington said.

“They have to undergo certain vaccinations if you want to enter them into the public school system,” he added.  

Charles Krich, principal attorney for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, says this corporate policy does not violate constitutional rights. It also does not qualify as discrimination.

“About a hundred years ago, the Supreme Court said the state absolutely has the right to require vaccinations of people to protect the public health,” Krich explained.

Going forward, Comeau and McKinnon face very different paths.

MacKinnon continues to wait it out at home, hoping Waterbury Hospital will allow her back to work without the vaccine. NBC Connecticut asked the hospital if there is any alternative to her getting the shot.

“When you put a face to the name, it's really hard to answer that question,” Dr. Steve Aronin, head of infectious diseases, told NBC Connecticut. “But when you think about the patients and the potential mortality that can be caused, it's a no brainer: the patients win.”

Hartford HealthCare’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rocco Orlando agrees.

“We look at is as no different than when you walk into patient care or a patient room to provide direct patient care. You should wash your hands. We expect that every time, every intervention. This is really something that's along the same grounds,” Orlando said.

Orlando added that Hartford HealthCare granted every religious exemption submitted as of the December 1 deadline.

Meanwhile, Comeau of Hartford HealthCare has held onto her job but sacrificed her privacy.

“I will be given a certain type of badge to wear, somehow indicating that i was exempt from the flu shot,” she said. “From what I understand I'll have to wear a mask if I’m within six feet of a patient.”

Comeau does not know how long this requirement will last but says she is relieved she avoided the shot. With this battle over, she says she has been empowered to campaign for vaccine rights for people like her counterpart in Waterbury, Karen McKinnon.

“I feel like this is something god put in front of me and it's maybe it's something I'm meant to continue to do,” Comeau said.

It is likely this issue will come up again as the flu season gets underway.

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