N.S. health-care workers could face mask or flu shot policy

Nova Scotia’s medical officer of health has put health care workers on notice: get a flu shot or be forced to wear a mask when tending to patients.

Current rate of vaccination in Nova Scotia hospitals is 47 per cent

Some provinces and Toronto-area hospitals have a flu vaccine or mask policy in place. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia’s medical officer of health has put health-care workers on notice: get a flu shot or be forced to wear a mask when tending to patients.

Dr. Robert Strang told CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon that he’s been advocating for health-care workers to get flu shots for 15 years and still less than half of them are immunized each flu season.

The current rate in Nova Scotia hospitals is 47 per cent.

Several other provinces and some hospitals in the Toronto require health-care staff to get the flu shot or wear a maskStrang said the policy clearly prompted more workers to get immunized.

“We know in other jurisdictions where they have brought in these mask or vaccination policies, in the first year they’ve gone upwards of 90 per cent,” he said.

Strang couldn’t say if fewer patients got the flu, explaining answers like that would require a research study as not everyone with flu-like symptoms gets tested for flu.

He says numbers do show that the higher the rate of vaccinations among health-care workers, the lower the rate of death from all cause in long-term care facilities.

“Health-care workers can and do spread influenza to patients and we know it’s the patients in health care that are most vulnerable,” he said.

But Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, said it’s too soon for a mandatory policy. The first step, she said, is to understand why health-care workers aren’t getting the flu shot.

“Why they are not, we need to find out,” she said. “Is it because they are not made available when the nurse is available to get it, like in the middle of the night?”

Dr. Robert Strang want to see 90 per cent of health care workers get the flu vaccine this season. ((CBC))

Strang doesn’t agree with that and said access has improved significantly over the past few years.

He blames myths surrounding the flu vaccine and said years of education haven’t boosted the numbers.

“It’s not adequate to get 50 or 60 per cent of health-care workers immunized every year against flu,” Strang said. “And what will it take to do that, we have an intervention that has clearly demonstrated will get us there in the first year.”

Strang said the policy won’t be implemented this year. He wants to get this flu season over and done with before working on the policy. He also wants to get past all the changes coming to the health-care system.

In the meantime, Strang would like to see 90 per cent of health-care workers get a flu shot this year, but he’s not confident.

“This would be an employer policy,” he said. “Whether it’s the health authority or long-term care facilities, not a government policy itself.”

Postings on the CBC Facebook page after the interview were passionate.

Brenda Tucker wrote: "I will never understand why so many health care workers refuse—I was an RN for 27 years and cared about the welfare of my patients. Really, how many people have adverse reactions to flu shots?"

Helen Cousins-Ryan posted:  "I would wear a mask, and goggles too, knowing what I know now. Flu shots are making big pharmacies rich, and God knows what they are doing to us. But Dept of Sickness does not care what businesses do, as long as it does not damage their bottom line."

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