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The toughest flu vaccine mandate in the country faces a legal challenge from the nation’s largest union representing health care workers.
The Rhode Island Department of Health issued a rule in October 2012 that requires all health care workers who are not vaccinated against influenza to wear a surgical mask during all patient contact when the Director of Health declares that influenza is widespread. Michael Fine, MD, made the first such declaration on December 5.
Health care workers who do not comply can be fined $100 for each violation and sanctioned by the licensing board for “unprofessional conduct.”
In a lawsuit filed on December 6, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) called the rule “arbitrary, capricious and irrational” and asserted that the rule violates the U.S. and state constitutions as well as labor, privacy and equal protection laws.
There’s no scientific evidence that flu vaccination of health care workers results in fewer cases of influenza or that wearing a mask during flu season protects patients, the SEIU said. Masks interfere with communication and might even increase the risk of transmission when health care workers touch their face to adjust the masks, the SEIU said.
The rule drew support from the hospital and long-term care industries in Rhode Island. “All of our members are in support of the policy,” says Amanda Barney, vice president of communications and administration at the Hospital Association of Rhode Island in Cranston. “By having a uniform policy, employees who work at multiple organizations know what the rules are no matter what. We applaud the director of the Department of Health for taking the lead on this issue.”