Should Hospital Workers Who Don’t Get a Flu Shot Be Required to Wear a Mask?

(Photo: Yasser Alghofily)

A few weeks ago, before the flu was national news, a reader who works at a hospital in Portland, Or., wrote to say: “The organization I work for just started this policy, I think it is very interesting and may push those who don’t want to get a flu shot for whatever reason to get a flu shot to avoid the stigma of wearing a mask. The employee comment section has ranged from HIPPA violations to discrimination for those who can’t have a flu shot based on egg allergies.”

Here’s the policy:

You may have heard by now: Flu season is ramping up in Oregon, with cases now starting to affect hospitalized patients in greater numbers. For individuals whose immune systems are compromised by other conditions, the flu can be life threatening.

To keep patients safe, a new Influenza Vaccination and Masking policy requires that workforce members do one of two things during flu season:

  • Get vaccinated. Free vaccinations are available through Occupational Health. If you’ve already gotten a vaccination somewhere other than Occupational Health — but haven’t been offered an official blue check mark sticker on your ID badge to reflect that fact — make sure you’ve filled out your attestation form.
  • Wear a mask. If the vaccine’s not for you or you just haven’t gotten it yet, policy requires that starting at 12 p.m. on Dec. 19 — and until the active implementation is lifted — yellow procedure masks must be worn within 6 feet of patients in patient care areas.

Remember: The official blue check mark sticker on your photo ID badge is the visual key used to determine who needs to wear a mask. Wearing the sticker is a choice, for those who have been vaccinated, but without it masks are required.

This doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. After all, hospitals are in the business of making sick people well, not making sick people sicker, and one thing a flu vaccine is meant to accomplish is to stop relatively healthy people from passing along a flu to more vulnerable people.

Your thoughts? 


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  1. Roger says:

    Draconian measure: it’s only the flu, not the bubonic plague…

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      Just in case that’s not sarcasm, I’ll note that influenza has a much higher overall death toll than bubonic plague. The 1918 pandemic was nearly a match for the Black Death by itself, and there’s a flu pandemic roughly thrice per century.

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  2. nancy says:

    I am trying to make the connection between, not getting the flu shot and the spread of the virus. If the vaccine increases your immune system, then logic tells me, it can still be spread whether you get the vaccine or not, so why doesnt everyone have to wear a mask? or no one wear one?

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  3. nancy says:

    Mike, if you understand how the flu vaccine works, should show that it doesn’t prevent the passage of the flu, only the extent that you may suffer.

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  4. Rod Griffiths says:

    The key question is does it work? Is this based on properly conducted trials, or is it just someone’s hunch. Personally I get the flu shot every year, my decision is based on some study of the mortality data. That works for me, but does it work as a health and safety policy?

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  5. Steve Cebalt says:

    Masks don’t work (according to the CDC), and they scare people. As I wrote my blog,

    “Spare me your courtesy; don’t make me pay for your illness”

    I read a quote in a travel article from a guy congratulating himself. He was REALLY sick but REALLY wanted to go on his vacation trip — on an airplane.

    “I wore a face mask as a courtesy to my fellow passengers,” he said, smugly and ignorantly. It is not a courtesy to wear a mask that tells me that if I am the unlucky one to draw the seat next to you, I’ve just won the communicable disease lottery; it means I am about to get sick. His sick-mask gesture was for his own self-satisfaction, so he could take his vacation flight and feel OK about making me sick — to ease his own guilt. So as to his “courtesy,” I say:

    “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

    Economists call his behavior a negative externality, which in this case simply means I pay the price for something HE did. The sick guy’s got nothing to lose; he’s already sick, and it costs him nothing to make ME and others sick on his way to his vacation resort. Thanks a lot!

    You are not being courteous nor considerate. You are making me feel very uneasy, sitting like packed sardines with my head 3 inches from yours, our elbows sharing an armrest on a lengthy flight where we also share the dead air trapped inside a flying tin can. I do not know what horrible disease you are covering up with an ill-fitting $2 tissue-paper sick mask, but my mind has to assume the worst; you’ve got something really bad and now I’m going to get it too, and I am going to die.

    I know this is a cultural thing, and in Asia and increasingly in Mexico and elsewhere people wear face masks all the time, on subways and in crowds. That doesn’t mean they work; they don’t, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

    “The CDC has not recommended the use of masks by the general public,” even during outbreaks of serious global viruses like Swine Flu, let alone your average common cold or seasonal flu.

    “Our study suggests that community use of face masks is unlikely to be an effective control policy for seasonal respiratory diseases.”

    What does the CDC say about illness and flying? “Don’t.” Don’t fly when you are ill unless the purpose of the flight is to seek specialized medical care for your ailment.

    There is no way to fly without putting everybody around you at very high risk of catching whatever illness you’ve got; they’ll pay the price for your selfish, asocial behavior. If you wear a mask, be honest and say you’re doing it to cover your shame, not to protect fellow passengers

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  6. Nancy says:

    All this talk about wearing or not wearing a mask. I guess a mask would work if you had a cough. Other than that, the germs are passed. Back to whether a person should be required to get a flu shot? So far it hasn’t been proven that the shot keeps the germ from being spread.

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  7. Jon says:

    Gosh. As economists you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are treating a supply side problem with a demand side solution! Ideas like firing employees or forcing them to wear masks are terrible solutions. You are making up for the shortfalls of the vaccine by punishing the doctors/nurses/staff! I believe this type of thinking is backwards and instead you need to focus on supply. Increasing flu shot clinics and making it easier to get the flu vaccine will help, but the problem will not be solved until a recombinant vaccine is made that provides lifetime (decades?) immunity to the flu. Right now, the seasonal influenza vaccine is not an enticing enough product to achieve the desired level of immunization.

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  8. Michele says:

    Does anyone know if the physicians in these hospitals are required to receive the flu vaccine? What about patients being admitted for elective procedures?

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