B.C.'s top doctor says flu shot policy to stay despite Ontario ruling
Dr. Perry Kendall says an Ontario arbitrator's ruling striking down the mandatory vaccinate or mask policy has no implications for B.C.
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British Columbia’s top doctor says the province has no plans to reassess its mandatory “flu shot or mask policy” for health-care workers following an arbitrator’s ruling striking down the policy in one Ontario hospital.
Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s chief medical health officer, argued the Ontario ruling has no legal implications for health-care workers in this province.
“The decision in Ontario was technically only relevant to the one hospital, the Sault Area Hospital,” he told Metro. “We don’t feel that the evidence as presented or interpreted by the arbitrator is the right decision.”
Kendall’s comments come after a group of more than 100 B.C. health workers, who call themselves the “Concerned Health Care Providers,” penned an open letter calling for the provincial government to suspend the vaccinate or mask policy until it has reviewed the Ontario ruling.
In September, arbitrator Jim Hayes ruled the “vaccinate or mask” policy at Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was unreasonable, and that it was “a coercive tool” to force health-care workers to get the flu shot.
In the wake of the ruling, Saskatchewan announced vaccinations or masks for health-care workers would be voluntary this flu season in that province while health authorities review Hayes’ ruling. Alberta is also taking a less heavy-handed approach to mandatory vaccinations for health workers.
Will Offley, a registered nurse in Vancouver who signed the open letter, said B.C.’s policy doesn’t make sense from an infection-control standpoint, especially after last year’s flu vaccine mismatch.
“Last year, there was zero protection,” he said. “If the mask is really about infection control, the only logical thing would have been to require all health-care providers to wear the mask regardless of their vaccination status, and that wasn’t done.”
Offley argued that there is also no evidence that wearing a mask works to reduce the spread of influenza.
But Kendall disputed the group’s claims that masks don’t work.
“There’s clear evidence that [wearing a mask] diminishes virus shedding or transmission, directs particles away from a patient, and it also protects the nurses wearing the masks,” he said.
Since the policy was introduced, Kendall said the compliance rate amongst health-care workers has reached about 80 per cent across B.C. health authorities.
He argued that health workers should do everything in their power to protect their patients, especially vulnerable groups like seniors.
“There have been numerous ethical reviews of this issue,” he said. “All of them say health-care workers have an ethical duty to take the steps they can to protect their patients.”
The B.C. Nurses' Union is also actively fighting the mandatory policy first made compulsory in 2012.
Earlier this year, BCNU President Gayle Duteil wrote to B.C. health employers asking them to revoke their policy in light of Ontario’s arbitration, but was told the policy would not change.
In September, the union filed a grievance in the form of an “industry wide application dispute.”
Kendall acknowledged the union's grievance, but said until it has been addressed, the province remains firm on its stance.
"At some point, this may be revisited again," he said. "But not currently."