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Saskatchewan implements flu shot or surgical mask policy for health-care workers

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REGINA - Health-care workers in Saskatchewan will face an ultimatum this upcoming flu season — get a flu shot or wear a surgical mask while caring for patients.

Dr. David Torr, chairman of the Medical Health Officers' Council of Saskatchewan, said patient safety is the top priority.

"We've been advocating for vaccine for over 30 years and what we're advocating now is immunize or mask," Torr said Wednesday in Regina.

"Whichever way, what is important is to reduce the amount of illness and transmission of illness."

Torr said influenza is the probably leading cause of death in Canada from infectious disease.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada website, there is an average of 12,200 hospitalizations for influenza every year. The flu is blamed for about 3,500 deaths annually.

"We've done so well in so many other infectious diseases, but we still strive and struggle with influenza so we're taking more and more measures and steps to improve that situation, reduce the illness and ensure better health care and better health within our facilities," he said.

Only about half of health-care staff and physicians in Saskatchewan get an annual flu shot. Torr hopes the number will increase with the new policy.

Saskatchewan will be the second province after British Columbia to introduce an immunize or mask policy.

The B.C. policy, which came into effect in 2012, states that health-care workers who don't get a flu shot must wear a surgical mask while doing duties that bring them into contact with patients for the duration of flu season, which could run from late November until late March.

The policy includes provisions for escalating disciplinary actions, up to and including dismissal, for employees who refuse to comply.

A B.C. health-care workers union filed a grievance against the policy, suggesting it would impinge on the privacy of workers because it would be interpreted as a visible declaration that they had forgone flu shots.

As well, the union raised concerns that some workers covered by the policy might not be able to do their jobs while wearing a mask — speech therapists, for instance.

However, an arbitrator appointed by the B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled last October that the policy is reasonable, and a valid exercise of the employer's management rights.

It's not yet clear what disciplinary measures will be put in place in Saskatchewan.

Torr said those "nitty gritty" details are still being worked out and the full policy will be released in the fall just before the flu season starts.

He said staff have a choice.

"We're saying immunize or mask. We're not saying either immunize or you're out, so this is different. We're trying the best way possible to get optimal infection control and prevention of serious illness from influenza."

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