Nurses Union Wins Battle Over ‘Vaccinate Or Mask’ Policy, Here’s Why

Over 30 hospitals that have implemented a “vaccinate or mask” policy will no longer be able to use this method to encourage flu vaccination, an arbitrator ruled. A case was brought against the Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie after the hospital tried to implement the policy in order to boost immunization rates, according to the Ontario Nurses Association president Linda Haslam-Stroud. The policy forced nurses and other healthcare workers to wear surgical masks for their entire shifts for the duration of the entire flu season regardless of if the staff was showing symptoms of illness or not, or if they refused to get their annual flu shot.

The Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie was trying to shame workers into vaccinating, Haslam-Stroud said.

“They were basically coercing and shaming nurses into getting the influenza vaccine if they individually chose not to take it. They made them all wear masks and they had little stickers on their name tag that everyone knew meant ‘I don’t have my vaccine.”‘

The Ontario Nurses Association claimed that the “vaccinate or mask” policy was a violation of private medical information, because it allowed everyone to be able to tell which healthcare workers had not been vaccinated, Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network and Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, explained.

“Essentially they are outing you, because your personal health information — whether you get vaccinated or not — is now public knowledge because you’re forced to wear a mask. People know who you are.”

The arbitrator on the case determined that the “vaccinate or mask” policy was unreasonable and called it “a coercive tool” instead of a protective health policy. During the case, medical experts testified on behalf of the Ontario Nurses Association stating that it was completely illogical to force healthy nurses to wear masks. The arbitrator said that the masks they wore were never actually protecting patients or other nurses from the flu.

“The sad part about it is it was giving our patients a false sense of security, and we knew that,” Haslam-Stroud explained.

While the Ontario Nurses Association celebrated, the Ontario Hospital Association expressed disappointment in the ruling.

Dr. Gardam stated that the flu shot is only about 40 to 60 percent effective during its best years. Gardam argued that considering this statistic, the mask policy should extend to all hospital workers if it was really about preventing the spread of the flu.

“So the only way you can really explain that argument is to say ‘well, it’s not really that the masks are working,”‘ Dr. Gardam said. “It’s because the masks are a way of driving you towards vaccination.”

The nurses union said that the “vaccinate or mask” policy was never a science-based policy; it was all about shaming and coercing nurses and other healthcare workers into getting vaccinated. If someone has the flu, there are already provisions in the nurses’ agreements with the hospitals that any non-vaccinated nurses would be assigned to another ward, according to the Canadian Press.

“I am not going to suggest that anyone should be forced to take the vaccine,” said Haslam-Stroud. “I personally take it, but it is an individual right as a nurse.”

A paper published last year in CMAJ boasted about the “vaccinate or mask” program paying off in two Canadian provinces, despite a “deeply divided staff of all stripes.” Employee immunization rates went up after the program launched in 2012. The article also cited legitimate improvements in the health of the staff.

“We used to have two or three units that closed for periods because both the nurses and patients would get the flu — that’s stopped for the last two years,” Marilyn Babineau, regional manager of employee health and wellness at Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick, stated.

With flu shot vaccination rates at around 70 percent, absenteeism dropped an average of two hours per employee, the author of the CMAJ article explained.

“Multiply that by 13,000 employees and it doesn’t take long to start saving some money,” Babineau stated.

By 2014, grievances were already brought against the government by the Health Sciences Association of British Columbia which was representing about 16,000 healthcare employees. The complaints from nurses and other healthcare workers cited the lack of effectiveness of the flu shot and the lack of evidence that healthy nurses wearing masks during flu season could even protect against flu transmission, according to the London Free Press.

[Photo via Pixabay]