The B.C. Nurses Union and other health-care unions are meeting with provincial health officials next week to discuss concerns about new policies concerning influenza precautions.
BCNU executive councillor Margaret Dhillon said Friday nurses’ concerns about flu shots vary, but include lack of evidence about potential long-term effects from getting the vaccine every year, not enough studies showing effectiveness and allergies.
“The union has always encouraged nurses to get the shot,” she said. But there are nurses who have reasons for not doing so.
On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall announced the province is requiring all health-care workers to get the vaccine or wear a mask during flu season.
However, Dhillon noted, the policy also requires workers who opt to wear masks to be redeployed to another area or take time off without pay if there’s an influenza outbreak.
That has been the case for years — except the requirement for masks — but the disciplinary steps in the new policy are more severe, she said.
“The new policy is if you refuse to wear a mask or get the shot, you could be disciplined up to the point of termination,” she said in an interview from Vancouver.
“So that’s one of our questions, if a mask is sufficient to protect workers and patients during flu season, why isn’t it sufficient during an actual flu outbreak?”
With flu season running from late November to March, there are nurses who don’t want to get the vaccine but who don’t want to wear a mask for that length of time, she said.
Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Rob Parker said the policy is the same for all of B.C.’s health authorities.
IHA keeps track of which of its directly employed staff get the annual flu vaccine, including those working in any long-term-care facilities that Interior Health has contracts with.
The immunization rate among health-care workers in IHA reached about 60 per cent for long-term facilities and 50 per cent for acute care during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
But since then, both of those figures have dropped by about 10 per cent, he said.
One of the reasons could be that health-care workers are in their prime years, so they are less at risk of getting severely ill from the flu, he said.
And because they require the shot every year, there is concern about the cumulative effects of being immunized.
Parker said studies have shown masks alone are not as effective because the virus is circulating throughout the facility.
Staff can opt to take antiviral medication in event of an outbreak, but it will take a couple of days for it to become effective. It’s unlikely staff would want to take antiviral medication throughout the four-month flu season, he added.
Interior Health will also have to figure out how to monitor doctors, who aren’t direct employees and aren’t on record for immunization.
Those with hospital privileges will need to get their shots, he said.
“I don’t have all the details, but I would assume doctors will be better tracked,” he said.
“I think it’s a great thing. I think it will improve patient safety.”
Vigilant handwashing will also be heavily promoted, as it’s another way of preventing the spread of flu.
Dhillon said the union wants to raise other factors that aid in the spread of influenza, such as hospital overcrowding and staffing shortages.