CANTON, Mass.—As the state prepares for the upcoming influenza season, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), the state's largest union of registered nurses and health professionals, strongly opposes a new policy being implemented by a number of hospital and health care employers calling for mandatory masking of healthcare workers as a component of a flu prevention program, and threatens to fire nurses who don't wear the mask throughout the hospital all day.
"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 today by the MNA/NNU Board of Directors. "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."
"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/NNU president Donna Kelly-Williams, RN. "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."
"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," says 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 added, "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."
The MNA/NNU position is strongly supported by a nationally recognized expert on the issue. "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," said William Buchta , MD, MPH, who is a Fellow with the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and a medical director of employee occupational health Service at Mayo Clinic, and who was in Massachusetts two weeks ago to speak about flu prevention and vaccination programs. "There are a number of proven means of reducing hospital infections that need to be implemented, but this is not one of them."