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BC backing down on flu shot requirement, says BCNU

The British Columbia Nurses' Union is claiming victory in a battle it and other unions waged with the provincial government over mandatory flu shots for health care workers.

"Following a strong public campaign by BCNU and others against the policy to force healthcare workers to get a flu shot or wear a mask this year, the Ministry of Health has agreed to back off and instead stress education and encouragement," the BCNU said in a late Friday news release.

A health ministry spokesperson could not immediately be reached to confirm.

Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall had previously said health care workers would be required for the first time this year to get flu shots as a way of protecting patients. Those who did not would have been required to wear a mask.

In past years, when vaccination was optional, roughly half of B.C. health care workers have chosen not to get a flu vaccine.

"People who have not taken the flu shot will not be forced to wear a mask," the BCNU said. "There will be no stickers or posted lists of those who have or have not taken the shot."

BCNU President Debra McPherson said the union has always encouraged its members to get flu shots, but that the decision is a personal one. "Given the clearly conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of the shot, we were very much opposed to policies aimed at forcing workers to get it," the release quoted her saying.

Update, 8:40 p.m.: The health ministry has been discussing the policy with the unions for some time and reached an agreement earlier today, a ministry statement said. When flu season officially starts Dec. 1, all health care workers who come into contact with patients will be asked to have had the immunization or wear a mask, it said.

"Health authorities will be taking a balanced and measured approach in the first year of this policy and will not be disciplining employees, but instead will focus on education and awareness to secure compliance with the policy," the statement said. "This balanced and measured approach ensures that the province and health authorities will continue to work with labour groups to address concerns they may have in this transitional first year of implementation."

More than 60 percent of full-time staff with the health authorities have already been immunized this year, which is a higher rate than in past years, it said.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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