As the state Department of Public Health mulls proposed state regulations that would allow hospitals to require unvaccinated healthcare workers to wear a surgical mask during flu season, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is speaking out, calling the proposal an unjustified violation of nurses’ rights.
“Masking has no value,” said Massachusetts Nurses Association spokesman David Schildmeier. “We encourage vaccination, that’s not the issue. This is purely a money-driven issue that has nothing to do with science or public health. The hospital industry puts pressure on [nurses] because it makes money from getting a lot of people vaccinated.”
About 84 percent of hospital health care workers receive vaccines, according to the health department, falling short of the state’s goal of 90 percent.
But, according to Schildmeier, not all nurses are able to receive the vaccinations due to health reasons.
“Basically, they would be forcing [nurses] to accept something they know is ineffective and punitive,” said Schildmeier, adding that the masks would have to be worn throughout the duration of the workers’ lengthy shifts, including while they are walking through the hallways and in the cafeteria. The nurses would likely go through about 30 masks a day, he said, and in some cases may endure health affects if they suffer from asthma.
But according to Dr. David Hooper, Chief of the Infection Control Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, the use of surgical masks is a standard component of CDC-recommended Droplet Precautions, which are designed to prevent transmission of influenza virus from an infected patient to a care provider.
“It would seem inconsistent if healthcare workers who were willing to wear surgical masks to protect themselves were not willing to wear the same mask to protect their patients,” said Dr. Hooper.
Massachusetts General Hospital has for several years had its direct care providers who did not receive an influenza vaccine wear a surgical mask when providing direct care to patients during influenza season, Hooper said.
“We still promote vaccination of all healthcare workers as the best and most efficient means of preventing influenza and protecting patients and healthcare providers alike,” said Hooper. “But in those cases in which vaccination cannot be done, wearing a surgical mask is used to provide protection for patients in case an unvaccinated healthcare worker has incubating influenza, which can be transmitted even before symptoms occur.”
Schildmeier said the union may try to negotiate with hospitals in the event that the proposal went through, perhaps working out an agreement that unvaccinated nurses ony wear the masks while they are in close proximity to patients.
“But we are investigating the legal options open to us on this issue and will proceed accordingly,” Schildmeier said.
The proposed regulations were outlined last week at a state Public Health Council meeting.
They would update requirements from 2009 for all health care facilities to personnel ensure vaccination, unless the worker declines or is unable to do so for health reasons.
Workers who decline vaccination would be required to sign a statement acknowledging that they may have to wear a mask.
Hospitals would supply the masks free of charge.