P.E.I. health-care unions fight vaccinate-or-mask policy

Unions that represent health-care staff on P.E.I. have filed a grievance with Health PEI over the new flu shot policy.

New policy says workers have to wear a mask if they are not immunized

The policy recommends all workers who come in contact with patients get the flu shot, but it is not mandatory. (Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock)

Unions that represent health-care staff on P.E.I. have filed a grievance with Health PEI over a new flu shot policy. The policy went into effect on Sept. 1, 2018 and recommends that all health-care workers should get the annual flu shot.

It also says once Public Health has identified lab-confirmed cases of the flu, the procedure for any front-line workers who have not been immunized is to wear a surgical mask within two metres of any patient.

They would have to continue to do so for two weeks following the last lab-confirmed case of the flu. 

But the P.E.I. Nurses Union says the policy doesn't make sense. 

Causing anxiety

Union president Mona O'Shea said some staff decided not to get the shot.

"Whether it's their own personal reasons, whether it's a health reason they have, a medical issue that they weren't able to get the flu shot, they are being told they need to wear a mask."

She argued the mask rule is unnecessary. "We have evidence that supports the wearing of a mask is no more beneficial than not wearing a mask during the flu season if you don't have the vaccine."

P.E.I. Nurses Union president Mona O'Shea says having to wear a mask singles out those who chose not to get the shot. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

O'Shea points to a recent win for the Ontario Nurses' Association that determined there was no evidence to show masking reduces the transmission of influenza. And she worries wearing the masks will affect patient care. 

"I think it does make the patient feel uneasy because they don't know why this individual has a mask on," she said. "So then it takes a little bit of confidentiality away that the nurse then has to provide information as to why she's wearing a mask."

O'Shea said the union supports the recommendation to get a flu shot but respects an individual's choice, and thinks existing policies and preventive measures are sufficient.

"We have all kinds of infection control policies out there for droplet infections, and it's good hand-washing, you know, covering your mouth if you're sneezing, things like that."

'Overkill' says UPSE

The P.E.I. Union of Public Sector Employees feels the same, and says Health PEI has taken it too far. 

"We just feel it's a bit unreasonable," said president Karen Jackson.

"For example if there is an outbreak in Souris, with this blanket policy ... members up west have to mask. We just feel it's a bit of an outreach and overkill of a policy."

UPSE president Karen Jackson says union members have expressed concern. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Health PEI said in developing the policy it went by recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and the Canadian Immunization Guide.

"Evidence supports that getting the influenza vaccine is the most effective way to protect against and prevent the spread of influenza," said Tanya Tynski, Health PEI executive director of human resources and pharmacare, in an emailed statement

"Having a consistent policy to prevent influenza from spreading is the right thing to do. Health PEI also recognizes the need to provide an effective alternative to immunization for staff."

Health PEI also said that it carried out consultations with all union groups, sent the policy and asked for feedback, but received none. Both O'Shea and Jackson said they were never invited to meet about the policy, and they have to represent what their members want now.

"We started to get feedback from our members that we needed to do something to protect the integrity and the confidentiality of our members," said Jackson.

The unions filed their grievance at the beginning of January and are now waiting for a response. Tynski said the department is working to address the concerns. 

More P.E.I. news


Natalia Goodwin

Video Journalist

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.


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