I’ve heard of companies muzzling their employees but only figuratively.


There’s nothing figurative about a new policy at Summa Health System.


Summa wants every employee to get a flu shot — and those who don’t must wear a mask.


Period.


Doesn’t matter if you have no direct contact with patients. Doesn’t even matter if you work for SummaCare, the group’s insurance company, located a mile from the nearest hospital.


If you work in the Summa system and haven’t gotten a flu shot, you must place a 4- by 7-inch mask over your nose and mouth, hook the elastic loops around each ear and wear it all day long. The only time you can remove it is when you eat.


In a memo to its 11,000 employees, the powers-that-be declared war on wintertime bugs:


“Seasonal flu is one of the more difficult viruses to control and manage, especially in a hospital setting. Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to decrease the chances of contracting the illness.”


Well, assuming the strain of flu you come in contact with is one of the three covered in this year’s concoction. The medical community can only make educated guesses.


And assuming your religious beliefs do not preclude receiving the inoculation.


And assuming you don’t have a severe allergy to chicken eggs, which would lead to a nasty reaction.


(Some people are allergic to a preservative in the vaccine called Thimerosal, but the hospital offers those employees Thimerosal-free shots.)


A person who is allergic to eggs and is not a member of a union fears that speaking out publicly against her employer’s new policy would have nasty repercussions. With jobs tough to come by these days, we will honor her request to remain anonymous.


Let’s call her Mary.


As in Typhoid Mary.


Mary works for SummaCare and doesn’t interact with patients, yet there she sits, breathing through a mask, eight to 10 hours a day.


Her glasses fog up, and she is uncomfortable. She has been told new masks are on the way that include a “fog shield,” but she still isn’t happy.


Mary labels the order from management a sign of “power run amok.”


On the heels of a spring directive about appropriate dress — including a prohibition against women wearing shoes that show more than 2.5 toes — and an autumn directive about what types and sizes of food items may be placed in company refrigerators by employees who bring their lunch, she views this as yet another abuse of management power.


Mike Bernstein, Summa’s public relations director, says the administration has received “a small number of [complaints], which we take very seriously and discuss with employees.”


“Ultimately, as health-care professionals dedicated to helping others, the overwhelming majority of our employees understand the importance of patient safety and welcome the flu vaccinations.”


Just how big a threat is the flu?


On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says: “It is estimated that, on average, approximately 5 percent to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu.”


So it’s either a whopping one-fifth of the population or a tiny one-twentieth of the population. Talk about a ballpark stab.


More to the point, a whole lot of people who never get flu shots never get the flu (I’d personally place that figure at somewhere between 5 percent and 95 percent), and some people who do get flu shots still get the flu because the strains in that year’s vaccine don’t include theirs.


Even when the shot matches the strain you come in contact with, the vaccine still is only 70 to 90 percent effective, according to the CDC.


So it’s hardly foolproof.


Worth noting is that the new rule does not apply to visitors. Anyone with any disease known to man can stroll right through the halls, hacking and wheezing and sneezing, and that’s just life.


“There was brief discussion [about requiring masks for visitors], but it was not considered as a viable option given the number of people who enter our facilities on a daily basis,” says Bernstein.


The hospital does require people visiting flu patients to wear masks, and it strongly urges visitors to avoid visiting when they’re sick. Summa also would introduce additional visitor restrictions if a flu season turns particularly ugly.


But when it comes to employees, the company isn’t messing around. A memo to staffers who work at the SummaCare office warned: “Employees who knowingly refuse to conform to SummaCare’s safety policy of vaccination or mask protection will be subject to Corrective Action.”


Yes, Corrective Action, with a capital “C” and a capital “A.”


The memo threatened even stronger sanctions if the program fell short of its goal of a 90 percent vaccination rate. That won’t be an issue: 92 percent of the employees have gotten jabbed.


The mask policy will end when the flu season is declared dead, which generally happens in late March or early April.


As if winter didn’t seem long enough already.


Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com.