Flu shot-or-mask rule upheld by arbitrator

Health care workers and visitors in patient care areas will be required to have the current influenza vaccination or wear a mask

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall

Health care workers and visitors in patient care areas will be required to have the current influenza vaccination or wear a mask when the annual influenza season returns in December.

Health care union objections to the policy were rejected by a labour arbitrator’s ruling this week, a decision Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall called “good news for patients.”

The policy can now be enforced for staff across all of B.C.’s health authorities, particularly in long-term care facilities, Kendall said Thursday. Visitors will be on an “honour system” to keep their flu shots up to date or use a mask when they visit friends and relatives, he said.

The current influenza vaccine is available from doctors and pharmacies around the province, and is free to those with chronic conditions or who come in contact with people who are at higher risk of serious complications from influenza. To find out if you are eligible for a free vaccine, see this website, ask your doctor or pharmacist, or call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1.

U.S. health care facilities have similar rules and voluntary compliance of staff members is very high, said Kendall, who has been pushing for the restriction for some time. Health employers now have the option of progressive discipline to make sure employees protect against passing on  influenza virus to vulnerable patients.

“We obviously hope it won’t come to that, because we believe that health care workers do care for their patients,” Kendall said.

The Health Sciences Association, a union representing lab techs and other specialists in the health care system, had argued that its members were entitled to make their own decision on whether to get the annual vaccine. It is formulated each year by international health authorities, based on the dominant strains of influenza that are found around the world.

Kendall said the arbitrator accepted research findings from the University of Minnesota that found the vaccine to be 90 per cent effective in years when it is a “good match” with the virus strain that emerges during winter.

The study found that a less accurate match causes the effectiveness to drop as low as 40 per cent, but Kendall noted that is better than zero protection, which is what skipping the flu shot provides.

Arbitrator Robert Diebolt wrote that given the seriousness of influenza, a severe respiratory condition that causes death in frail elderly people each winter, increasing immunization protection is a reasonable policy for health care facilities.

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