B.C. VIEWS: Help the hospital, get a flu shot

Health care unions are ordered to protect vulnerable patients after losing a self-centred, anti-science battle to refuse

Police officer receives a flu shot at the B.C. legislature. Emergency services personnel are immunized every year

VICTORIA – I got my influenza shot this week, paid for out of pocket since I don’t qualify for any of the higher-risk groups provided with free immunization.

A reminder to take this simple health precaution came in October when a labour arbitrator ruled that it is a reasonable employment requirement for health care workers to either get the current immunization or mask up in patient care areas.

Quiet advocacy by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall has paid off. Staff, doctors, outside contractors and visitors will have to put patients first.

Health care unions pressed a grievance on behalf of members who insist they have a right to refuse immunization and increase exposure to patients. They have apparently run up the white flag.

“We will be telling our members to comply with the new policy, or risk being fired,” said an overly dramatic Val Avery, president of the Health Sciences Association. HSA lawyers led the grievance, supported by the Hospital Employees’ Union and the B.C. Nurses’ Union.

Avery said the union will continue to urge its members to take advantage of on-site flu shot clinics. That’s right, like most provincial employees, they all get immunization that is not only free but administered at work.

Kendall announced the regulation last year, after finding that 40 per cent of employees in long-term care were not getting the current influenza vaccine, and the rate of immunization was declining.

Their objections make no sense. Aside from the self-serving “rights” argument, they complain that the annual flu vaccine isn’t effective enough.

The formula is developed by international effort to track the dominant strains that emerge as winter rolls around the world. Kendall says a poor match results in about 40 per cent immunity, and a good match reaches 90 per cent. At the risk of stating the obvious, he notes that even 40 per cent is better than nothing.

After two weeks of expert testimony, arbitrator Robert Diebolt, a retired UBC law professor, wrote as follows:

“It is indisputable that influenza can be a serious, even fatal, disease. Immunization also indisputably provides a measure of protection to health care workers and I have found that their immunization reduces influenza transmission to patients.

“I have also concluded that there is a real and serious patient safety issue and the policy is a helpful program to reduce patient risk.”

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control calculates that if all health care workers would get immunized, the risk to patients would be reduced nearly 50 per cent. The Ministry of Health warns: “you can spread influenza for 24 hours before you have any symptoms.”

What would cause educated health care workers to defy common sense? A hint is provided by professional union promoter and publicist Bill Tieleman, who railed about the decision on his blog.

This regulation is inspired by big bad U.S. health care corporations that would rather impose immunization than pay for sick days, Tieleman asserts. Ah, so an infected health care employee should wander the wards until symptoms emerge, and then go home for a few days of paid rest. What a perfectly stupid idea!

Last week BCNU president Debra McPherson was warning about “chaos” at the new Surrey Memorial emergency ward, her latest of a career of media protests. The big new facility is already overflowing, and more beds and more staff are needed, stat!

Perhaps if better preventive measures were taken by nurses, doctors and other staff, this chronic “chaos” would be reduced and these unions would have more credibility.

To find your nearest flu shot clinic, see here.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalNews.com. Twitter:@tomfletcherbc

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