Not Halloween: UVA hospital makes masks mandatory
As the flu season draws closer, UVA Medical Center is providing an added impetus to its employees who can't or won't get a flu shot: Mandatory masks.
Chief Medical Officer Jonathon Truwit informs his colleagues of the unusual new requirement in a September 14 email: "Staff or faculty who are unable to or choose not to receive the seasonal flu vaccine will be required to wear masks throughout the work day/shift when the flu season arrives."
So much for frequent hand-washing.
Those who do get the flu shot not only get to show their face in the hospital, they also get a blue sticker stamped "2009" to sport on their name badge.
The reason for the heavy pressure to get a shot or wear a mask, explains Truwit, is that it's possible to be sick and spread influenza viruses like H1N1 before feeling sick. He expects 7,500 Medical Center employees to take the shot.
"Historically, we have high but not complete compliance with flu vaccination," Truwit writes in an email. "Our goal is to enhance vaccination rates, not mask use."
And those who don't get the shot must wear the hospital's equivalent of the scarlet letter of shame.
"A minority is not happy with using the mask as an alternative," concedes Truwit.
Over at the Thomas Jefferson Health District, epidemiologist Elizabeth Davies expressed suprise– but not shock– over the hospital's latest policy.
"Health care workers are a vulnerable population," she points out. "They're the ones on the frontline seeing sick patients. It's important to protect them–- and the patients."
By the way, the state is no longer counting cases of swine flu. "It doesn't serve a point to do case counting when you know it's in the community," Davies says.
Although Truwit's directive pretty clearly says the unvaccinated must be masked throughout their shifts, he offers further clarification of the policy in a September 16 email to the Hook: "Masks will be used by unvaccinated employees when delivering patient care, not all day."
That same day, another Truwit email to employees specifies that during flu season, those who have contact "within 6 feet of patients for at least 60 seconds" must don masks.
In that case, it sounds like lunch will be much easier to eat.
Updated September 21, 2009