Wear a mask or get a shot? That's the choice for B.C. healthcare workers when it comes to the seasonal flu vaccine. But is there evidence the policy will reduce the number of infections in patients?
A B.C. policy requiring health-care workers to get a flu shot or wear a mask while caring for patients during flu season has been upheld.
Arbitrator Robert Diebolt dismissed the grievance brought by the B.C. Health Sciences Association, which represents about 16,000 health-care workers, against the government.
The disputed policy requires health-care workers to be vaccinated against flu each year, or to wear masks while caring for patients during flu season.
The ruling from the arbitrator says the policy is a valid exercise of the employer's management rights.
Val Avery, the president of the Health Sciences Association, says they will be advising their members to comply with the policy.
“We will be telling our members to comply with the new policy, or risk being fired,” said Avery in a statement issued on Thursday morning.
“We are of course disappointed in the arbitrator’s ruling... Our members believed they had a right to make personal health-care decisions, but this policy says that’s not the case."
Mask not an option for all: nurse
The ruling complicates matters for some health-care workers.
Debbie Hodges, a psychiatric nurse in Powell River, B.C., is allergic to flu shots and says wearing a mask could compromise her safety on the job.
Last time Hodges got a flu shot, she went into anaphylactic shock and ended up in intensive care, an experience she says "was terrifying."
Hodges said that wearing a mask, her other option, could upset some of the psychiatric patients she works with.
"When you are working with paranoid, suspicious people and you've got a mask on, they are going to become more paranoid and suspicious... and they might lash out and hit you," she said.
Policy is for patient safety: Diebolt
Diebolt wrote in his decision that given the seriousness of influenza, a program that increases immunization rates in the health-care setting is a reasonable policy.
He said he was persuaded there is a rational connection between the policy and patient safety.
Diebolt said it's important to note British Columbia is not alone in instituting a flu shot policy for health-care workers. Many U.S. institutions have already put in place such requirements.
The policy was to go into effect December 2012, requiring employees who work with patients to get a flu shot or wear a mask under threat of discipline, including dismissal.
Several health-care unions, including the Health Sciences Association, launched a grievance arguing their workers are entitled to privacy and their own choice on the matter.