Ethel Hoover wore all black on her last day of work as a nurse at an Indiana hospital. She would have been at the hospital 22 years in February, but no longer has a job because, according to ABC News on Jan. 3, she refused to take a mandatory flu shot.
The deadline for employees to refuse flu shots was Dec. 15, 2012. Hoover did not get her flu shot and her last day of work was Dec. 21, 2012. The hospital fired eight employees for refusing flu shots, including Ethel Hoover.
"This is my body. I have a right to refuse the flu vaccine," Hoover, 61, told ABCNews.com. "For 21 years, I have religiously not taken the flu vaccine, and now you're telling me that I believe in it."
Flu is rampant this year and the Centers for Disease Control recommends flu shots for everyone older than six months of age. Hospital patients are especially susceptible to flu complications because their bodies are already weakend, according to Dr. William Schnaffer, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
According to Dr. Schaffner, nurses tend to be the most reluctant to get vaccinated among health care workers. “There seems to be a persistent myth that you can get flu from a flu vaccine among nurses,” he said. “They subject themselves to more influenza by not being immunized, and they certainly do not participate in putting patient safety first.”
A lot of people avoid flu shots because of egg allergies and fear of injections. These concerns have been virtually eliminated with both egg-free and inhaled versions of the vaccine being readily available.
Attorney Alan Phillips is defending Ethel Hoover. He says his client had the right to refuse the flu shot under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination of employees. Religion, under the First Amendment, is legally broad and can include any strongly held belief like flu shots are bad.
"If your personal beliefs are religious in nature, then they are a protected belief," Phillips said.
The belief seems to be widespread this year. Phillips, who practices in North Carolina, usually handles a couple dozen health care worker cases per year. This year, he has 150 in 25 states.
Admittedly, it’s a hard call, personal rights vs. public safety in a health care setting. Ethel Hoover is being gracious about her firing, although fellow nurse Kacy Davis said she and her colleagues were “horrified” over Hoover’s firing. Ethel Hoover, they said, was their “go-to” nurse and a “preceptor.”
"It was a good place to work," Ethel Hoover said. "We've worked together all these years. We're like a family."