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Forcing Nurses to Wear Flu Masks for Entire Shift Misguided & Unfair, Union Says

The Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), the commonwealth's largest union of registered nurses and health professionals is strongly opposing a new policy being implemented by a number of hospital and healthcare employers calling for mandatory masking of healthcare workers as a component of a flu-prevention program, and, according to the Union, threatening to fire nurses who don't wear the mask throughout the hospital for their entire shifts.

"Rather than focus on systems and policies that actually prevent flu transmission, many institutions are now focused on setting a misguided and ineffective policy which mandates that healthy healthcare workers wear a mask for eight to twelve hours while on duty if unvaccinated," according to a position statement approved Dec. 27 by the MNA/NNU Board of Directors. MNA is affiliated with National Nurses United, the nation's largest union of RNs.

"We encourage nurses to become educated on the risks and benefits of the influenza vaccine and decide whether to vaccinate, but there is no medical evidence that the masking of nurses or healthy workers prevents the transmission of influenza," the MNA/NNU statement continues.

"No one cares more about protecting the public health than nurses as we are on the frontlines in protecting our patients from all types of illnesses, including the flu, every day. But we cannot and will not support useless policies, especially policies that are only designed to coerce nurses into doing something against their better judgment and policies that may cause them personal harm, with absolutely no benefit for any patients," says MNA/NNU President, Donna Kelly-Williams, RN.

"The medical evidence shows that surgical masks are designed to prevent dispersion and are not designed to prevent inhalation of airborne particles containing virus, therefore masks would be more effective if placed on people who are coughing or sneezing, whether patients or workers," adds Margaret O'Connor, an occupational health and safety specialist with the MNA/NNU.

"Masking an asymptomatic nurse is neither preventive in the spread of infection nor appropriate," O'Connor notes. "Under hospital masking policies, patients, visitors and vendors who are more likely to be vectors of illnesses are free to walk around facilities unmasked while nurses and others are forced to wear masks with no benefit to the patient population."

William Buchta , MD, MPH, a Fellow at the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, medical director of Employee Occupational Health Service at the Mayo Clinic, and a nationally recognized expert in flu prevention, strongly supports the nursing union's positions.

"Mandatory masking in lieu of vaccination of healthcare workers as is being implemented in Massachusetts makes no sense and will do little to stop the spread of infection," Buchta says. "There are a number of proven means of reducing hospital infections that need to be implemented, but this is not one of them." 

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  Last Post: December 30, 2012 | View Comments(1)

As an Infection Preventionist RN I have also implemented a policy similar to this. Any unvaccinated direct care staff member must wear a mask durin direct care (droplets only travel approx. 3 feet, CDC recommends 6 feet) during any flu outbreak, for the duration of the time our patients are on antiviral prophylaxis. For just the opposite reason this union is arguing. Correct, the masks prevent dispertion, I am not worried so much about protecting the unvaccinated staff members. My patients are geriatric and immunocompromised. Influenza can be transmitted up to one day before showing symptoms. So only making symptomatic staff wear a mask is futile, by then they have come into contact with multiple patients. The mask is very much effective!

Melissa Bailey,  RN Clinical Care Coordinator,  LTCDecember 30, 2012
Clinton, NY


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