Los Angeles County Public Health Director Dr. Jonathan Fielding issued an order that requires health care workers in the county to receive an annual influenza (“flu”) vaccination or be forced to wear a protective mask while interacting with patients.

The order mandates that all health care personnel in acute care hospitals, long-term care facilities, and intermediate care facilities in L.A. County receive flu vaccinations. The goal of asking those who are not vaccinated to wear a mask is to “lower the rates of influenza transmission among health care personnel and the vulnerable populations they serve.”

“Our goal is to close the gap between the current vaccination rate and our national standard of 90 percent, and this mandate offers our best chance to achieve this,” Fielding said. “Health care personnel mandates have been shown to greatly increase immunization rates.”

Fielding’s order is in response to data from the 2011-2012 flu season that shows 95 percent of American health care workers in hospitals that required vaccination were vaccinated. In hospitals that didn’t require flu vaccination, only 68 percent of personnel were vaccinated.

LA County Dept. of Public Health hopes that the new order yields similar results. It will apply to about 680 facilities countywide. Fielding pointed out that while California requires that hospitals make flu vaccines available for free to health care workers, this is the first official mandate saying that they have to get vaccinated or face wearing a mask.

“Hospitals have been required for some time by state law to provide vaccine, no requirement to, in fact, have people immunized or otherwise use a mask when in contact with patients, so that’s what’s different,” Fielding said.

Flu season runs from about Nov. 1 to March 31 each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately about 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu and 24,000 people die from the flu annually.

Doctor’s offices, clinics, pharmacies, and even some employers offer flu vaccinations — some of them free of charge. To find out where you can get vaccinated, visit HealthMap Vaccine Finder.