More health-care workers could feel the sting of a vaccination needle this flu season if they comply with the B.C. Ministry of Health’s new flu shot policy.
The policy, announced last week by provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall, gives health-care professionals who are caring for patients in publicly-funded health facilities, including long-term care facilities, the choice of either receiving a vaccination or wearing a protective mask during influenza season.
The policy also extends to physicians, volunteers, students, contractors and vendors who come into contact with patients.
Jo Taylor, chairwoman of the Pacific Rim branch of the B.C. Nurses’ Union, said the union has always supported immunization programs, but initially nurses were worried the policy would be punitive if workers didn’t comply.
She said talks this week with the Ministry of Health have left the union feeling more positive about the initiative.
Taylor said some members don’t get their annual flu shot because they have had reactions to the vaccination in the past or some newer nurses haven’t had the same education about vaccinations.
At Nanaimo Regional General Hospital nurses routinely go through the building to try and make it as convenient as possible for nurses to get their vaccination, said Taylor.
Dee Hoyano, a medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said the policy isn’t designed to be punitive because people are being given the two options.
She said the ultimate goal is to reduce influenza transmissions to patients.
According to the B.C. Ministry of Health, the policy was created in response to low vaccine rates among health-care workers and others giving care in public health facilities, which it estimates at below 50 per cent.
Health authorities provide free influenza vaccinations to all workers, volunteers and students who work with patients.
The policy will be used in conjunction with other measures including hand hygiene, rapid identification of ill patients, using antivirals during outbreaks and asking staff to stay home when ill.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, medical director of communicable disease control for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said it isn’t possible to track how often patients are getting infected by care providers in public health facilities.
But studies have shown that immunization dramatically reduces the infections among patients, she said.
Henry said using masks isn’t as effective as vaccinations.
“At most it only protects during interactions,” she said, adding many health care workers get infected in the community when they aren’t wearing protective equipment.
Mike Old, a spokesman for the Hospital Employees’ Union, said the union believes getting the annual flu vaccine is a good for workers’ health but the route the government should take is more education.
“This new policy seems to be a bit heavy handed,” said Old.
He said HEU also has concerns about costs. If the vaccination rate is currently below 50 per cent and the rates remain relatively the same it could mean millions of masks are being used daily in health care facilities.
It could also create communication problems between patients who rely more on visual cues, such as a patient who is hard of hearing in a long-term care facility.
The policy will also change the atmosphere of health care facilities during flu season, said Old, if more health professionals are wearing masks.
He said a child or someone in a dementia care facility may have difficulties adjusting to a care environment where people around them are constantly wearing masks.
He said a “reassuring smile” can be important during the care of these patients.