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Flu shot or mask, health workers told

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall - Black Press
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall
— image credit: Black Press

VICTORIA – B.C. health care workers will be required to get an annual influenza vaccine or wear a mask in all patient contact areas in the community or publicly funded facilities, starting with this year's flu season.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall announced the regulation Thursday, a first for Canada. It applies to health authority staff, doctors, volunteers, students, contractors and vendors who come into contact with patients.

Free flu shots have been made available to B.C. health care workers for years, and despite encouragement, fewer than half take advantage of them. The average vaccination rate for long-term care employees is closer to 60 per cent, but Kendall said that rate is still too low and has declined in recent years.

Canada's national advisory committee on immunization considers it a "professional responsibility" for health care workers to get their flu shot every year, Kendall said.

The mask option is being offered for workers who have a medical reason not to be vaccinated, and to avoid disputes with employees who simply refuse. "Progressive discipline" would be imposed on employees who refuse both during flu season, just as it would be for those who fail to wash their hands or take precautions when coughing, Kendall said.

B.C. is the first province to move to mandatory influenza protection, following the lead of U.S. jurisdictions where vaccination has increased to more than 95 per cent. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control estimates that complete vaccination of health care workers would reduce the risk risk for patients by 47 per cent, as well as protecting the workers from exposure from infected patients.

The annual influenza shot is made available around Thanksgiving each year, to prepare for a season that typically runs from late November until March. A new formulation is used each year to match the strains most likely to be circulating in North America during the winter.

Kendall said he doesn't know why immunization rates for health care workers have declined. But he cited persistent myths about hazards of contracting the flu from the vaccine or experiencing other adverse effects, which he said are very rare.

"Some people believe they are healthy and don't get influenza," he said.

The Canadian Nursing Association, the College of Registered Nurses of B.C. and the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons all support vaccination for health care workers..

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