People visiting the Ridge Meadows Hospital and other facilities run by Fraser Health are now required to either have a flu shot or wear a medical mask.
The new rule applies to all visitors and staff members – some of whom have so far resisted getting a flu shot – and will be in force throughout the winter flu season.
This province-wide requirement was challenged by the B.C. Health Sciences Association, representing 16,000 health care workers, which brought a grievance against the government.
In October, an arbitrator upheld the new policy as a reasonable requirement. The policy was in place last year, but this is the first flu season it will be enforced.
Fraser Health chief medical health officer Paul Van Buynder said the policy applies to all patient care areas across the province, including long-term care facilities, and even patients’ homes if health staff are going there.
“It’s anywhere we interact with patients,” he said.
Signs at the entrance of facilities ask visitors to wear masks if they have not received the flu vaccine. Whether members of the public wear one or not will be determined by the honour system.
What’s more, if you know you’ve caught a bug, you are asked to stay home.
“If you’re unwell, we don’t want you to visit at all,” said Van Buynder.
Influenza is one of the top 10 killers in the country. An estimated 3,500 Canadians die every year from the flu or complications arising from the virus.
“This is a long overdue policy, because influenza kills thousands of people every year,” he said. “It is a very, very nasty disease for the vulnerable.”
Van Buynder said the flu is not recognized as serious illness by the public, generally, because they often mistake the symptoms of the more common cold virus instead of the flu.
Influenza can have even an otherwise healthy person bedridden for a week.
The new policy was adapted only after a review of similar policies around the world. In the U.S., he said there are 150 health care organizations with a million employees who have similar rules. In some, a vaccination has been made a mandatory condition of employment – there is no mask option.
Those who oppose vaccinations argue that a flu shot can make the recipient sick, and are only effective 60 per cent of the time.
“If you don’t get vaccinated, it never works,” said Van Buynder. “And that’s still 60 per cent less virus around.”
He doesn’t understand why there is resistance to flu vaccinations, when people haven’t reacted the same way to immunizations for other serious illnesses, such as chickenpox, tetanus or Hepatitis B.
“None are perfect, but we don’t stop using them.”
The criteria to qualify for a free flu shot are increasingly inclusive, and people who will be visiting a hospital patient qualify. Van Buynder thinks it should be part of everyone’s winter routine.
“Everyone should get one – it helps stop circulating the disease.”
The flu season typically runs from December through March. Fraser Health will announce when the flu season ends, and masking no longer required.
“It’s been a mild flu season so far, but it’s early days,” he said.