A common-sense way to help curb the spread of the influenza virus

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized for complications from influenza – the “flu.” What many people don’t know is that the flu is a serious illness that can be fatal with about 35,000 deaths across the country every year.  However alarming these facts are, we have the opportunity to limit the number of flu related illnesses and deaths by passing SB 1318 (Wolk), for influenza is a vaccine preventable disease and only 63% of health care providers receive their flu vaccine.

The bill, sponsored by the California Medical Association (CMA), would ensure that patients have added protection from contracting the influenza virus by requiring health care workers to either receive the flu vaccine or simply wear a mask while providing patient care during the flu season.

Influenza is an ever changing and highly contagious virus that can cause mild to severe illnesses and, in the most unfortunate cases, may even lead to death. Seniors, young children and patients with certain preexisting health conditions are at the highest risk for serious flu complications, and those are the very people who   use health care facilities the most.

People with influenza can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away and this virus spreads mainly by droplets made when infected people cough or sneeze creating aerosolized droplets, or when they cough or rub their nose and then touch a surface like your hand during a hand shake. Individuals are the most contagious prior to actually having any significant symptoms, and they can infect a lot of people without even knowing they are sick.

These methods of disease transmission are important in understanding why SB 1318 is so critical to containing the spread of the virus in health care facilities. For professionals in these settings who, for whatever reason, decide not to get the vaccine, wearing a mask during the flu season creates an important barrier that can help prevent the spread of this infection to the most vulnerable patients 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each season[1]. Common sense follows that health care workers in patient care areas should be required to get the shot or wear a mask.

Several counties, including Sacramento, Yolo, and San Francisco, and numerous hospitals have gone beyond state law and have instituted strict vaccination policies that include a masking requirement for those who decline vaccinations.  This masking policy has proven to be the most effective policy to increase vaccination compliance rates and protect its patients. 

Not surprisingly, California hospitals with the highest vaccine compliance rate are those that have such policies in place.

Also not surprising, the CDC confirms that health care workers who get vaccinated reduce the transmission of influenza, staff illness and absenteeism, and influenza-related illness and death.

SB 1318 is a strong piece of legislation that will improve public health by decreasing the transmission of the flu, keep our sickest patients safe and prevent the spread of this potentially life threatening disease.

SB 1318 is basic public health, and anyone saying otherwise is putting politics in front of  your family’s health.

Ed’s Note: Anthony W. Russell, M.D. MPH is a Sacramento pediatrician and a member of the California Medical Association.

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