Lawrence Memorial Hospital is now requiring its staff to either get a flu vaccination or wear a surgical mask when dealing directly with patients.
Hospital officials say it's a policy recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one that is based on research showing it helps reduce the spread of influenza. But it's one that has stirred controversy in other parts of the country, including Massachusetts where a statewide nurses union has openly opposed it.
"We did quite a bit of research," said Greg Windholz, director of LHM's Business Health Center. "We don't ever want to change a policy without, one, doing the research and, two, seeing what is going on in the area and what other hospitals are doing."
The CDC has long recommended that health care workers receive flu vaccinations each year. In 2009, it began recommending the use of face masks and respirators in certain settings in response to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus.
Since then, Windholz said, the policy has become a standard practice in most hospitals.
"That's pretty consistent," Windholz said. "There are hospitals that (require) mandatory flu vaccines. If they're not, they require flu vaccines or wearing a mask when doing direct patient care. It's pretty universal now, not only in this area but across the country."
Windholz said LMH formally adopted the policy last fall, and it went into effect recently with the first laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza in Douglas County. He said the policy is only in effect during an active flu outbreak, and it applies only to workers involved in direct patient care who come within six feet of a patient.
Last month, a similar policy adopted by many Massachusetts hospitals sparked opposition from the Massachusetts Nurses Association which posted a statement on its website.
"There is no medical justification for these policies, which are designed to bully nurses and staff to take the flu vaccine regardless of nurses’ medical and/or personal concerns," the statement read.
The new policies are coming in a year when the seasonal flu outbreak is proving to be more widespread than normal.
"It's certainly early, and seems to be more intense than where we were last year," said Charlie Hunt, state epidemiologist at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Hunt said KDHE tracks flu outbreaks through a voluntary reporting system that involves a network of outpatient clinics that report patients complaining of flu-like symptoms. The trends are published on KDHE's Influenza Surveillance website, which shows that in the last week of December, more than 5 percent of all patient visits were related to flu symptoms.
That's far more than the peak of the seasonal flu outbreak in each of the last two years, peaks that normally don't occur until late February or early March.
"Generally speaking, when influenza activity starts to ramp up, it will stay elevated for several weeks, so I would anticipate that if this year's influenza behaves like typical influenza, then we're going to see elevated levels for a while," Hunt said.