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Central Mass Nurses Up in Arms Over Flu Mask Policy

Saturday, December 22, 2012


The Massachusetts Nurses Association is strongly opposing a new policy implemented by UMass Memorial Medical Center and other hospitals that calls for the mandatory masking of healthcare workers as a component of a flu prevention program.

While the MNa insists they encourage nurses to become educated on the risks and benefits of the influenza vaccine, they consider the policies misguided and ineffective.

“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,” said MNA President Donna Kelly-Williams. “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.”

UMass Memorial is one of several hospitals to adopt the practice. Others include Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, Lawrence General Hospital and Boston Medical Center. Public Relations Director for Vanguard Health Systems Beth Donnelly said non-vaccinated nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester must wear masks only when within six feet of patients during a flu surge.

Unreasonable Demand?

Nurses at UMass Memorial say that although the MNA encourages nurses to receive flu vaccinations, they don’t like to have their hands forced. Ellen Smith, co-chair of Mass University Local Bargaining Unit of MNA, says she has seen plenty of people react poorly to the vaccination and doesn’t want to suffer the same fate.

“I don’t know what kind of side effects the vaccination will have on my body,” said Smith, who says she wears a mask around patients anyway but doesn’t like having to wear it in the nurses station and elsewhere in the hospital. “I don’t want to be told what to put in my body.”

Smith said the hospital now requires non-vaccinated nurses to wear masks everywhere on campus, with the exception of the elevator and cafeteria. She also said the administration has a list of the nurses who haven’t received the vaccination and targets them specifically.

“I think this policy is unreasonable,” said Smith. “People shouldn’t be bullied into being vaccinated and that’s exactly what UMass Medical is doing.”

There is also the question of whether forcing nurses to wear masks is even an effective safety measure. According to Dr. William Buchta, a Fellow with the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, mandatory masking in lieu of vaccination does not address the dangers posed by the spread of infection.

“There are a number of proven means of reducing hospital infections that need to be implemented,” said Buchta. “But this is not one of them.”

Understanding The Thinking

UMass Memorial says this policy is not revolutionary nor is it asking too much of nurses considering the dangerous nature of the virus.

“Influenza can be deadly, especially to patients who may have suppressed immune systems, and at UMass Memorial Medical Center, we cannot and will not roll the dice with our patients’ lives or the lives of our staff,” said Media and Public Relations Manager Robert Brogna.

Brogna also pointed out that UMass Memorial is one of many hospitals that have implemented the policy, and 96 percent of the staff has been vaccinated.

However, the MNA believes the practice of mandating a mask is a punitive, coercive way of ensuring that nurses meet a 90-percent influenza vaccine rate among healthcare employees. The association said that facilities are required to meet the rate or risk losing a portion of Medicare reimbursement.


Disciplinary actions have already been taken against some nurses who refuse to abide by the new policies. Margaret McLoughlin said she was ordered to attend a counseling session after she wouldn’t wear a mask during a meeting she attended on November 30th.

According to McLoughlin, a registered nurse and co-chair of the UMass Memorial local union, the meeting took place in the hospital’s basement in a non-patient care area. She believes the actions that took place demonstrates that the intent of the policy is more about the administration retaliating for nurses refusing to agree to the vaccination rather than promoting patient safety measures.

An Alternate Suggestion

The MNA has its own ideas in regard to what steps a hospital should take to protect against the flu and other infections. Among their suggestions are an adequately staffed group of nurses educated in appropriate infection prevention practices, an increased awareness about the flu vaccine among patients, employees, vendors and visitors, and established and enforced guidelines by Environmental Services to include cleaning surfaces and disinfecting patient rooms.

“With proper staffing and a commitment to many of the strategies recommended by infection control experts that we have included in our position statement, hospitals could really protect our patients and we support all those measures,” said Kelly-Williams. “It’s time for the industry to stop bullying nurses and start listening to them so that our patients receive the care they deserve.”


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