Hospitals are where sick people go to get better. But sometimes, they're also where healthy people get sick. Now, with a potentially severe flu season on the horizon, many hospitals are strengthening their vaccination policies and requiring workers who refuse the flu shot to wear surgical masks. Harrington HealthCare System this week became the latest organization to install a mask policy. “Our first and foremost priority is to take care of our patients, and this is one way to do that,” said Edward H. Moore, Harrington's president and chief executive. The health care system, which operates the 114-bed hospital in Southbridge, has told unvaccinated workers to wear masks when they're entering patient rooms or are within 3 feet of a patient.
UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester has a stricter policy: Workers who have not been vaccinated must wear masks throughout the hospital except for entryways, elevators, break rooms and the cafeteria. Hospital administrators say the goal is purely to prevent the spread of a dangerous — sometimes deadly — virus. The new policy at UMass Memorial appears to have swayed many workers to get the flu shot. Last flu season, the Worcester hospital had one of the worst vaccination rates in the state; less than 61 percent of its workers were vaccinated. This year, more than 90 percent of hospital staff received the flu shot. But some say the masking policy goes too far, eroding workers' rights and doing nothing to prevent the spread of illness.
“I feel it's a bullying tactic,” said Ellen T. Smith, nurse and co-chairwoman of the nurses bargaining unit at the hospital's University Campus. Ms. Smith has been wearing a mask, covering nose to chin, during her 12-hour shifts. “I do not receive the flu vaccine,” she said by phone from a nurses' convention in Las Vegas. “I just don't believe in it.”