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Aiming to keep flu outbreaks in check after last year's pandemic virus, local hospitals are telling employees to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated.

Parkridge Health System, Memorial Health System and Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe are requiring employees to get the flu vaccine or wear a face mask in patient care areas throughout the flu season.

This year Erlanger Health System will not require its employees to get the shot or make those who aren't vaccinated wear a face mask, said Coretha Weaver, infection control coordinator.

FLU CLINICS

* Catoosa County: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Benton Place Campus, 145 Catoosa Circle, in Ringgold, Ga. Cost is $20.

* Murray County: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday for ages 18 and older, Murray County Recreation Department in Chatsworth. Shots for all ages available starting Wednesday at county health department. Cost is $20.

* Whitfield County: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday for 18 and older, North Georgia Trade and Convention Center, 2211 Dug Gap Battle Road in Dalton. Shots for all ages start Thursday at county health department. Cost is $20.

"Erlanger's plan is to highly publicize, educate and strongly encourage our staff at all five campuses to have the influenza vaccine," she said.

Face masks have not been proven to prevent the spread of flu, she said in an e-mail.

Last year Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America, parent company for Parkridge, said that employees who chose not to have the shot and refused to wear a face mask would risk termination, but no one refused to comply, spokeswoman Pat Holloway said.

Health care providers who work directly with patients easily could spread disease among patients or staff members, hospital officials said.

"We know that when health care workers are vaccinated, we reduce influenza illness by at least 88 percent," said Angie Finch, Parkridge infection control manager for the market.

This year's vaccine protects against three strains of flu virus, including H1N1, which caused the so-called "swine flu" pandemic last year.

Amy Carroll, with the Catoosa County health department, said in an e-mail that public health departments recommend vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older, including young adults at high risk for contracting H1N1.

A Memorial staff member who asked not to be named for fear of losing her job said she's declining to get the shot.

"I don't have any concerns about this particular vaccine, but I think it's unnecessary," she said. "I don't really get the flu, and I think something like that should be optional when it comes to injecting something into your body."

The requirement to wear a face mask seems more punitive than practical, she said.

"It's just going to be a kind of a scarlet letter," she said. "It still isn't going to stop the spread of germs through hands and things like that."

But local hospital leaders say it's better to be safe than sorry.

"The flu remains the No. 1 vaccine-preventable cause of death every year," Finch said. "It's the right thing to do."

Memorial spokesman Brian Lazenby said employees may be exempted if they have strong justification, such as an egg allergy, previous serious reactions to vaccine or religious belief, including a personal conviction against getting vaccines.

Click here to vote in our daily poll: Do you plan to get a flu shot this year?

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