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Rhode Island Health Care Workers Must Get Flu Shots

October 15, 2012

All Rhode Island health care workers who have direct contact with patients must get flu vaccinations, according to a mandate handed down by the state Department of Health on October 5.

The regulation (pdf) applies to nursing assistants who work at nursing homes and home care workers employed by home care providers, as well as physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and many other health care workers.

“A flu shot for all those who interact with patients as part of their employment or volunteer efforts at a health care facility is the best way to prevent the spread of influenza to some of our state’s most vulnerable populations,” said Michael Fine, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, in a press release.

The requirement is “the nation’s most sweeping flu-shot mandate,” wrote Felice J. Freyer, medical reporter for the Providence Journal, in an article published before the mandate became official.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone above the age of 6 months should be vaccinated, but maintains that vaccination is particularly urgent for health care personnel.

A study published in the October 2011 issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found that the likelihood of a flu outbreak in long-term care facilities is drastically reduced if up to 75 percent of direct-care staff are immunized.

Opposition to Requirement

According to the terms of the requirement, health care workers and volunteers can opt out of the vaccination for medical or nonmedical reasons.

Those who decline due to nonmedical reasons, such as moral opposition or religious beliefs, are required to “wear a surgical face mask during each routinely anticipated direct patient contact during any declared period in which the flu is widespread,” the Rhode Island Department of Health said.

Several organizations –- including the American Civil Liberties Union and SEIU Healthcare 1199 New England, which represents Rhode Island’s and Connecticut’s health care workers -– have spoken out against the mandate, saying that vaccination should be completely voluntary.

Critics argue that forcing people to wear surgical masks is impractical and unenforceable.

A post on the SEIU New England website says that “1199 encourages all health care workers to get the flu vaccine, but we respect the fact that some people choose not to…. There’s no scientific evidence that surgical masks help prevent the spread of the flu, and those we care for could feel threatened or uncomfortable if their caregivers are wearing masks.”

– by Matthew Ozga

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