Nurses on the Coast are concerned that a mandatory flu shot policy handed down by the province this week has sidestepped the real issue.
“We would much rather the employer address the excessive workload and health of their employees rather than impose mandatory policies,” said Kath-Ann Terrett, chair of the Coastal Mountain Region British Columbia Nurses Union. “We all know that when people are stressed the immune system can be compromised and with the attendance wellness program in Vancouver Coastal [Health] bullying nurses to come to work sick — the mandatory immunization policy leaves us feeling unheard and concerned that the real issues about patient safety are being swept under the rug.”
On Aug. 23 provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall announced the new plan to make flu shots mandatory for all health care workers at publicly funded facilities, in an effort to curb influenza outbreaks and the complications that arise.
The new policy applies to health authority staff, physicians and residents, volunteers, students, contractors and vendors who come into contact with patients.
Kendall said those who refused the shot would be forced to wear masks during flu season, which typically runs from late November to the end of March.
Until now, health care workers have been encouraged to get the immunization, but it has not been mandatory.
“Each year for many years now, health authorities have worked to encourage influenza immunization amongst their workers, and the vaccine is always provided to them for free. However, despite our best efforts, influenza immunization coverage rates on average remain below 50 per cent,” Kendall said.
Terrett noted issues with misinformation were likely the cause of local nurses refusing the vaccine, although she said no local statistics on flu shots have been kept.
“We had hoped the employer might provide more education for those who are reluctant or misinformed rather than the heavy-handed mandatory policy. Nurses truly care about patient safety,” she said.
Kendall said he realizes misinformation is an issue for some, but added that getting the shot is health care workers’ “ethical and professional responsibility.”
“Influenza causes more deaths annually than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined, and hospitalized patients are more vulnerable to complications from influenza than the general population,” he said, adding the shot is safe and is the most effective way to prevent the flu.
He said there would be discipline for health care workers who didn’t get the shot or wear a mask during flu season.
“It would be exactly the same as somebody who obviously refused to wash their hands in the hospital on an ongoing basis, practise good cough etiquette or refused to wear a mask in the operating room. We hope that won’t happen but there are processes in place,” he said.
It is the mandatory nature and punishment attached to the new policy that has local nurses upset.
“The nurses I have spoken to just shake their heads,” Terrett said. “Just another straw added to the camel’s back.”