B.C.’s provincial health officer is putting in a policy that all health-care workers have to get a flu shot or wear a mask when dealing with patients during influenza season.
Dr. Perry Kendall said Thursday the influenza vaccination rate for health-care workers in B.C. is around 40 to 50 per cent, but that figure has been declining in recent years. While that’s better than some provinces, it’s not ideal and can put vulnerable patients at risk.
The policy calls for health-care workers at publicly funded facilities or in the community who are in contact with patients to have the flu shot or wear a mask.
Flu season is from late November to March.
"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," Kendall said.
"This policy will protect patients. Putting in place consistent policies to prevent influenza from spreading is the right thing to do from a patient safety perspective."
Staff who don’t wear a mask or get the vaccine will face standardized protocols for progressive discipline, he said.
“We would really hope not (resistance to the policy). It is an ethical responsibility.”
Kendall said there are studies showing a significant number of health-care workers get the flu, and some still go to work even when they’re infected. There’s also a 24-hour period before symptoms begin to show that could affect patients, he said.
Between 2,000 and 8,000 Canadians die each year from influenza or its complications.
The vaccine is the best option, with protection ranging between 40 and 80 per cent, depending on how well matched the inoculation is with circulating influenza strains.
Kendall said he’s not making the vaccine mandatory because it could create labour relations challenges that would tie up efforts that he would rather see spent on encouraging people to fight the flu.
Masks are a reasonable option because flu is spread through droplets that the face coverings would catch, he said.
“It’s not as good as vaccination, but absolutely better than nothing.”
The new policy applies to all health-care workers including health-authority staff, physicians and residents, volunteers, students, contractors and vendors who come into contact with patients.