Los Angeles County health care workers who refuse to get flu shots will spend the next five months behind masks, per a new order by the county director of public health.
California law already mandates that most hospitals require employees to be vaccinated against the flu, and that hospitals provide these vaccinations for free. The county order would add an extra layer of protection against the flu, since some employees are allowed to refuse shots under religious and other exemptions, according to a memo from Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who heads the county health office.
"The goal of the order is to lower the rates of transmission of influenza among health care personnel and the vulnerable populations that they serve," according to the Los Angeles County website.
These employees would have to wear masks when around patients or in patient areas from November through March, according to the county.
But the order's purpose may to push more people to get vaccinated as a way to avoid wearing a mask for five months. Los Angeles County health care personnel vaccination rates are between 40 percent and 60 percent, far short of its 2020 goal of 90 percent, according to the county.
"Policies mandating vaccination or masking have been shown to raise vaccination rates among HCP [health care personnel] above 95 percent," the order states.
Last year, attorney Alan Phillip represented 150 health care workers in 26 states who were fighting to be exempt from flu shots. He said that mandatory vaccination policies often violate civil rights, and if the masks were punitive or coercive, they might prove problematic.
But Dr. William Schaffner, a former president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said the masks were not punitive but preventive.
"Just as vaccines are not perfect, neither are masks," said Schaffner, who heads the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "But both are pretty good at reducing the risk of transmission from one person to another."
He said it's important to remember that employees who simply take the day off when they are sick can't stop the spread of influenza because it's contagious a full 24 hours before symptoms begin.