B.C. health authorities and unions are now trying to figure out how to deal with an arbitrator’s ruling that health-care workers have to have a flu shot or wear a mask when dealing with patients between November and March.
The ruling came down from arbitrator Robert Diebolt on Thursday after the Health Sciences Association grieved the provincewide policy. He cited the seriousness of influenza and the fact some other jurisdictions have implemented mandatory immunizations among his reasons.
HSA president Val Avery expressed disappointment in the decision.
“Our members believed they had a right to make personal health-care decisions, but this policy says that’s not the case. Flu shots are now mandatory for all health-care workers, and if they fail to disclose whether they have been immunized, they must wear a mask at all times throughout flu season,” she said in a statement.
Health Minister Terry Lake said the ruling will help protect the sick and vulnerable.
“Older people are so susceptible, flu can become an acute life-threatening illness.”
The honour system will be relied on in most cases as far as whether visitors or staff have had their shots, he said.
A spokeswoman for the Hospital Employees’ Union said most of her members already get the shot and those who don’t will be expected to wear masks.
Margie Blamey said that means employers have to provide enough masks for staff to use — and in some cases, that could mean several per shift.
She wondered how the ruling will be enforced, especially for visitors who are also being required to be vaccinated or wear a mask.
“I imagine the first few weeks will be a little rocky,” she said.
And there are still details lacking, such as whether all hospital staff would have to be immunized or wear masks, even if they’re working in a boiler room away from patients. Or what about those who, for medical reasons, can’t get the flu shot?
Blamey said those who don’t comply will be subject to disciplinary action, up to termination. Contractors who don’t comply risk losing their contract and doctors risk losing their privileges.
The union was happy that the requirement was removed for those who didn’t get the flu shot to wear a sticker. And staff aren’t required to rat out those who haven’t been immunized.
But there are still unknowns, she said. Even flu season hasn’t been fully defined, although it’s generally thought to be late November to some time in March.
The other side of the coin is that workers are supposed to stay home if they start feeling ill, but they’re under pressure not to do so. Blamey said they feel bad leaving their coworkers shorthanded and their employers are on them for taking sick days.
“Talk about an issue of conscience, going to work sick if you work in residential care,” she said. “Employers make it difficult for someone to stay home and take care of themselves.”