British Columbia’s front-line health professionals must either get the flu shot this year or wear a surgical mask in patient areas. Except it’s okay if they don’t. Such is the confusion in B.C. hospitals and clinics after the ministry of health watered down its controversial policy of mandatory flu shots for health workers who deal with patients.
The province originally announced the policy in August to combat low vaccine coverage among health workers. At the time, B.C.’s chief medical officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, said it would protect patients from contracting influenza, which causes more deaths than any other vaccine-preventable disease. An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal praised the move, but B.C.’s major health unions fought it, arguing it infringed on worker’s rights and liberties.
On Dec. 4, the health ministry suspended the enforcement of the new policy for one year. That’s left “considerable confusion,” says Bonnie Pearson of the Hospital Employees Union, which helped negotiate the temporary compromise. Some employers are still telling workers to wear a special badge if they don’t get the shot, even though that part of the policy has been suspended, she says. Pearson argues a mandatory policy can have the opposite effect: “It’s that kind of a perverse ‘I’m not going to do it because you tell me I have to’ argument,” she says.
There’s been an upside to the controversy: more workers now get immunized than before. In the Fraser Health region, 70 per cent of full-time health professionals got a flu shot this season, compared to the typical 35 to 45 per cent. Province-wide, the figure is 60 per cent, suggesting a flu shot boom among health workers. Other provinces considering similar rules for their doctors and nurses are no doubt taking note.