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At least one employee has been fired for violating Mercy’s policy requiring flu vaccination, a hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The nurse had been granted a religious exemption from the annual flu shot while working for St. Anthony’s Medical Center before it was acquired by Mercy this year, according to the organizer of a protest outside Mercy South on Tuesday.

“That’s the problem here, they declined the religious exemption,” said Nelia Aubuchon, who would only say she is close to the nurse who was terminated.

Mercy implemented its flu shot policy in 2016. This year, the company received 170 requests for medical or religious exemptions to the flu vaccine among its 44,000 employees across four states. Although most of the requests were granted, employees whose exemptions were declined were notified this week, according to a statement.

“The point of our flu vaccination policy is simple: protection against the flu virus saves lives, especially those of our most vulnerable patients,” the statement says.

The 2017-2018 flu season was the most severe in decades, with an estimated 79,000 deaths and 960,000 hospitalizations attributed to the virus. Below-average vaccination rates (37 percent of adults) contributed to the wave of illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The CDC recommends that all health care workers get flu shots and says in a position statement that mandatory vaccine policies “can enhance patient safety.

While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective at preventing the flu, it can still reduce the severity of symptoms and cut the spread of infection to others. The hospital setting is particularly vulnerable to an outbreak because of the high-risk patients — including pregnant women, newborns and people with chronic medical conditions — and suppressed immune systems, doctors said.

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More than two-thirds of hospitals in the U.S. require their employees to get flu shots. Vaccination rates in hospitals with a flu shot mandate reach 97 percent compared to 79 percent of workers in hospitals without such a rule, according to a 2017 survey in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In addition to Mercy, local hospital systems BJC HealthCare and SSM Health have flu shot requirements for employees that include exemptions for medical or religious reasons.BJC implemented the flu shot policy in 2008 for all employees. More than 98 percent of 26,000 BJC employees got the vaccine that year, and most of the others received waivers. Eight employees were fired that year for not complying with the policy, according to an internal report. Updated figures were not available Tuesday.

Last year, Essentia Health in Minnesota fired about 50 employees who refused to get flu vaccines after a union representing some workers failed to get a court injunction to stop the terminations, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice has signaled recent opposition to vaccine mandates through a lawsuit filed earlier this year against a Wisconsin county that fired an assistant at a public nursing home after she refused a flu shot on religious grounds.

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