Health-care workers in B.C. are no longer required to wear a mask when dealing with patients if they do not get a flu shot this year.
The B.C. Nurses' Union negotiated last week with the Ministry of Health regarding the new policy, which would have mandated the wearing of masks as of Dec. 1.
Debra McPherson, president of the B.C. Nurses' Union, said the union is satisfied with the ministry's decision to stress education rather than enforcement in the first year of the new policy.
"Given the fact that the scientific evidence is not compelling, and given that it does start to broach on people's privacy rights ... certainly that was not the best way to go," she said. "It was punitive and coercive and it was creating a really hostile work environment because it was having the front-line managers be responsible for monitoring and implementing the punishment," she said.
In August, the ministry announced only about 50 per cent of health-care workers in the province get the flu shot each year, and that the new policy would reduce the risk of infection among the most vulnerable people in the province, such as the elderly.
The official health-care worker influenza control policy has been implemented as of this week, but it has been amended to encourage, rather than force nurses, doctors and other medical staff to wear a mask if they are not vaccinated.
The ministry will also continue to work with nurses and other health-care workers to strategize on the most effective way to increase the vaccination rate.
"This balanced and measured approach ensures that the province and health authorities will continue to work with labour groups to address concerns they may have in this transitional first year of implementation," said Laura Neufeld, a spokesperson for the ministry, in an email to the NOW.
More than 60 per cent of full-time health-care workers have opted for the shot this flu season so far, she noted.
John O'Neil, dean of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, said there is misinformation circulating among the public about the safety and potential risks of getting a flu shot.
"There's a lot of web-based information and information being put out by organizations that really don't understand scientific backgrounds to immunization, and particularly immunization for influenza, and, unfortunately, people are making decisions based on that misinformation," he said. "So an education campaign should help people sort through that misinformation and make a more informed decision."
O'Neil said he hopes to see an increase in vaccine rates among health-care workers in response to the educational aspect of the ministry's new policy.
"That is what I think we all want as the outcome," he said.