Visitors to hospitals and care homes in the province should be immunized or wear a mask this flu season, says B.C. Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall.
The new policy, aimed at protecting patients, will require everyone visiting Island Health hospitals and long-term care homes to either be vaccinated against the flu or wear a mask during the flu season, which typically starts in December and runs through March, Kendall said in an interview.
“We’re expanding our policy to visitors,” said Kendall, responsible for announcing the beginning of flu season, based on lab results. Under this policy, visitors to health-care facilities can receive their vaccinations free of charge. Those public clinics begin next week.
The policy is based on the honour system because it would be impossible to know whether visitors are vaccinated or not.
The policy also enhances last year’s controversial made-in-B.C. directive that health-care workers — including nurses, doctors, students, contractors, vendors and volunteers in hospital and care homes — be immunized or wear a mask during the flu season.
“That policy is still in effect,” Kendall said. “If health-care workers are not immunized against the flu, we expect them to wear a mask.”
The policy for health-care workers was met with resistance last year and grieved by the Health Sciences Association of B.C. At issue for health-care workers is having to declare one’s choice about vaccination by wearing a mask.
Health-care unions argue it’s a personal choice and there are reasons — allergies, sensitivities, religious beliefs — that prohibit some staff from being vaccinated. While not enforced during the first “educational” year, discipline for those non-immunized workers not wearing a mask could range from an initial discussion to suspension and possible termination.
The Health Employers’ Association of B.C. argues the mask is for patient safety. “It’s a strong affirmative step to say we will do whatever it takes to protect our patients,” said Dr. Brendan Carr, Island Health’s president and chief executive officer.
On Monday at Royal Jubilee Hospital, he kicked off the first day of vaccinations for Island health-care staff.
Island Health says 62 per cent of health workers were vaccinated last year and in Island Health long-term-care facilities the number of residents affected by the flu dropped 28 per cent.
“As a physician, I feel I have an ethical and moral obligation to do everything I can to improve patient safety by reducing the risk of spreading influenza,” Carr said.
Hospitalized patients and seniors in residential care are more vulnerable to influenza and, for them, the flu vaccine is also less effective — about 50 to 65 per cent in frail seniors compared with up to 90 per cent in a healthy person.
Influenza affects 10 to 20 per cent of the population each year, and about 20 to 30 per cent of children.
Hospitals and care homes have long requested visitors wear a mask if they have a cold or flu symptoms, but the province is now trying to protect vulnerable patients from people who are unaware they are contagious.