B.C. will be the first province in Canada requiring healthcare workers to get the influenza vaccine or wear masks when on the job — and not everyone is happy about it.
The policy change — announced late last week by the Ministry of Health and to be enforced this year — applies to health-authority staff, physicians and residents, volunteers, students, contractors and vendors who come into contact with patients.
According to the Ministry, historic vaccination rates among healthcare workers, volunteers and students have been less than 50 per cent, even though the vaccination is offered for free by health authorities.
B.C. Nurses Union Pacific Rim chair Jo Taylor said she always got the vaccine before she became a BCNU chair and stopped coming into contact with patients, but she was not impressed with the policy change initially and neither were some other BCNU members.
“I’ve had many members contact me about this because they want it to be a choice whether they have historically chosen to have it or not. This felt heavy-handed initially and they are reacting,” said Taylor.
“I do think that it has value and understand that value, and like the union I support the program but it just shouldn’t be punitive and there should be education that goes with it,” Taylor said. “Nurses want to care for their patients safely and can make those care decisions whether it’s wearing a mask or having the vaccine.”
On Monday, the BCNU, Health Employers Association of B.C. and the Fraser Health Authority chief medical officer met to discuss concerns.
Taylor noted a feeling of a more collaborative approach after the meeting, adding the BCNU will not have to look at legal options for its members.
The benefits of the influenza shot are clear and the risks to take it are so low that she doesn’t understand why there is a debate about the issue, said Dr. Charmaine Enns, Vancouver Island Health Authority medical health officer for the Comox Valley.
“As healthcare workers, as healthcare providers, we have a duty to care that is an ethical standard of care, and that is, that we protect our patients from bad outcomes,” said Enns. “If we can prevent a vaccine-preventable disease from being transmitted — we do that.
“So what this policy across the province is meant to do is encourage healthcare providers to get the vaccine because the risk of influenza to the people we care for is so high and yet the risk for us to take the vaccine is so low — it is a very, very safe vaccine.”
Enns added sides effects most commonly include an achy injection site or a bit of a fever, and it is impossible for the vaccine to give someone the influenza virus.
She stressed the young, elderly and chronically ill are among the most at-risk, and while healthy adults may get quite sick, influenza is not a benign virus for these people. Instead, it can cause serious disease and death for them and often people will die from pneumonia or some other complication, but with influenza as the root cause.
According to Enns, the vaccine gives healthy adults about 80 per cent protection, while at-risk people are only about half again as responsive to it.
“So that’s why as healthcare providers, we need to ensure we are not transmitting the virus to those people, because even though those people have got the vaccine, they have a much lower response rate to it,” she said.
“We also know from doing large randomized control studies in long-term care facilities that when staff from those facilities are immunized, morbidity and mortality, so death and serious disease, during that influenza season in those sites drops significantly.”