TRENTON — As debate continues about whether New Jersey parents should have the right to opt out of having their children vaccinated, another measure has been passed and signed into law that requires all health care workers to get an annual flu shot.

The bill, adopted by the legislature and quickly approved by Gov. Phil Murphy last month, applies to hospitals, nursing homes and all other licensed health care agencies.

It defines a health care worker as anyone employed by a health care facility who provides direct patient care or otherwise has contact with patients.

Kate Gillespie, of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, supports the new law.

“To me it’s like putting my seat belt on. There’s a reason I put my seatbelt on because it’s evidence-based that If I put a seatbelt on and I’m in an accident I have a better chance of surviving," she said.

She said many health care facilities already have this kind of policy in place because “most of the time, when patients come into the hospital, they’re sick and their ability to fight off infection is diminished, so it’s really protecting our patients.”

She pointed out that “it’s also protecting our nurses because patients are coming in with multiple infections and things the nurse can catch.”

Right now in New Jersey flu levels in all parts of the state are peaking.

“We’re definitely seeing high levels of influenza-like activity statewide,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan. “This is expected. We typically peak during January.”

She said last year at this time, there were similar levels of flu. What's unusual this year is the increase in flu Type B, which usually dominates later in the flu season.

Symptoms for both types are similar: fever, cough, sore throat, aches, tiredness. Flu can also lead to serious complications and death.

Gillespie pointed out it’s important to have all health care workers immunized because infections can be spread in many ways at multiple locations inside a health care facility.

“It’s not just the people that are doing direct care at the bedside — it’s your housekeeping service, it’s your cafeteria and dietary people who are working with food.”

She said many diseases had been eradicated by vaccinations and some younger generations may not fully recognize the importance they have played in safeguarding the health of the general population. Diseases like measles have started to resurface.

Workers who cannot be vaccinated because of medical reasons are exempt from the requirement. Gillespie said in some health care settings where a worker is not able to get a flu shot they will be moved to a setting where exposure to patients is minimized but they may still be required to wear a mask and gloves.

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