There are several states that have laws or regulations that require flu vaccination for health care workers. Three of these states, Arkansas, Maine, and Rhode Island, have stated penalties for employees who refuse. Rhode Island is the state that has most recently enacted such a regulation. This regulation, which went into effect this past October, may be the toughest and is currently being challenged by the health workers union in court.
Rhode Island’s regulation requires all health care workers be vaccinated for the flu, though it has exemptions for religious or medical reasons. However, unvaccinated workers who are in contact with patients are required to wear face masks during the flu season. Some Rhode Island hospitals have posted signs stating that the workers who wear masks have not received flu shots. Opponents of the masks say they violate their health privacy. If an employee refuses the mask they can be fined $100 and my face a complaint or be reprimanded for unprofessional conduct. This could result in losing their professional license.
While a health care employee union supports voluntary flu shots they believe that workers should not be forced to take the vaccine. Additionally, to require that hospital workers who do not get flu shots to wear masks during their long shifts and under stressful conditions is intolerable.
The healthcare employees union has sued the Rhode Island Department of Health over this regulation. The union’s claim is that the regulation violates employees’ due process rights. Additionally, they claim that there is no valid medical evidence showing that the health of patients is protected by vaccinating employees. The union also alleges that the mask provision hinders communication between patients and employees. The health department says the lawsuit has no merit since the union did not establish any likelihood of success.
The Rhode Island Medical Society, which has members on both side of the issue and has decided to remain neutral, does not believe that the regulation was necessary. While they understand the desire for everyone to be immunized the medical society believes that through the education of hospitals and their medical staff and the professional unions they would have achieved the same results as the regulation.
It is important that doctors do not transmit diseases to patients. However it is questionable whether if a patient contracted the flu it could be traced back to an unimmunized doctor. Additionally, if the patient was to suffer serious injury or death as a result of contracting the flu and where the patient contracted the flu was in question it is unlikely a medical malpractice suit would arise.
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