Widespread flu activity prompts healthcare worker masking requirement

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The Rhode Island Department of Health has announced that the flu is now “widespread” in Rhode Island, triggering the requirement for unvaccinated healthcare workers in hospitals and many other healthcare facilities to wear masks during direct patient contact.

“The masking requirement helps protect healthcare workers from catching the flu, and helps protect patients who are often dealing with other serious health issues,” said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH. “For people who have not been vaccinated yet, it is not too late. Flu vaccination is the single best way to keep yourself and the people you love safe from the flu. Getting vaccinated today will still provide you with months of protection.”

Unvaccinated healthcare workers must wear masks when involved in direct patient contact at the types of facilities listed below. Examples of direct patient contact are entering a patient’s room, serving food to patients, or participating in group patient activities. The requirement also applies to all licensed Emergency Medical Services (EMS) practitioners who have not been vaccinated against the flu.

Widespread is the highest tier in the five-tier system used to measure flu activity. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and many other states throughout the country are also currently experiencing widespread flu.

The healthcare facilities and organizations to which the masking regulation applies are adult day care programs, assisted living facilities, CVS Minute Clinics, free-standing ambulatory care surgical centers, free-standing emergency care facilities, home care providers, home nursing care providers, hospice providers, hospitals, kidney treatment centers, nursing facilities, organized ambulatory care facilities, and physician ambulatory surgery centers.

RIDOH is also reminding Rhode Islanders about seeking medical care in the most appropriate setting. Many types of illnesses and injuries do not require an emergency department visit, including flu when the symptoms are not so severe. Going to an emergency department for a case of the flu with symptoms that are not severe will likely result in a long wait because emergency departments prioritize more serious injuries and illnesses. Cases of the flu with symptoms that are not severe are often more quickly treated by a primary care provider or in an urgent care facility. RIDOH has information and lists online for urgent care facilities, as well as for community health centers and other express care facilities in the state.

Some cases of the flu, however, should be treated in an emergency department. Warning signs that indicate that someone with the flu does need to go to the emergency department include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pain or pressure in the chest; and having flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough. If someone is not sure if they need to go to the emergency department, they should contact their primary care provider. A primary care provider will be able to provide guidance about the next best step. (Most offices have physicians on-call after hours.)

Everyone older than 6 months of age should be vaccinated against the flu every year. In addition to healthcare workers, vaccination is particularly important for pregnant women, younger children, people over the age of 50, nursing home or group home residents, and people with chronic conditions (such as heart, lung, or kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, anemia, blood disorders, or weakened immune systems). Flu shots are available at doctors' offices and pharmacies throughout Rhode Island.

For more information, visit health.ri.gov.

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