PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island health care workers will have to get flu shots under a new policy announced Friday, but the regulations could be challenged by a union that represents nurses and others in the industry.
The Department of Health said health care workers, trainees and others who have regular, direct contact with patients, including volunteers, must be immunized.
Workers with a medical reason for not getting the shot may get an exemption with a doctor’s note, the health department said. So may those who don’t have a medical reason but still don’t want to be vaccinated. They will have to submit a form saying they refuse the shot and will wear a surgical mask while visiting patients when flu is considered widespread.
Chas Walker, a spokesman for a union representing health care workers that opposes mandated flu shots, said his group is still reviewing the policy and considering its options. He said the union supports raising the vaccination rate among its membership but that it wants to do so through a voluntary campaign, not a mandate that inspires ‘‘animosity.’’
Walker said the union delivered to the health department a petition signed by more than 1,000 Rhode Island health workers in favor of keeping immunization voluntary.
Some hospitals and health systems across the U.S. have required the shots for health care workers, but there has been resistance. New York state in 2009 adopted a policy mandating the shots but suspended it shortly afterward in the face of a legal challenge.
Rhode Island Health Department Director Michael Fine said Friday the department took health care workers’ concerns into consideration in drafting the new policy. But he stressed the need to protect public health.
‘‘Those who care for and interact with patients in a healthcare setting have a duty to protect the health and safety of those for whom they care,’’ he said in a statement. ‘‘A flu shot for all those who interact with patients ... is the best way to prevent the spread of influenza to some of our state’s most vulnerable populations.’’