United Nurses president calls for full range of measures to combat influenza

United Nurses of Alberta supports the call for an increase in overall immunization rates among all health care employees, but is concerned that by emphasizing this single issue Health Minister Fred Horne and the government of Alberta are focusing on the wrong thing.

“Influenza immunization is only a shot in the arm for infection control,” explained UNA President Heather Smith this afternoon.

That is, vaccination programs are only a small part of the overall response that is required to prevent exposure to influenza and the spread of this serious disease in  health care settings, she said. Other components include routine hand hygiene, personal protective equipment, isolation policies, sufficient capacity in the system to meet a surge in patients and adequate staffing.

In a news conference today, Horne said fewer than half of Alberta’s health care employees have been vaccinated and pointed to the need for higher rates of flu vaccination among health workers as the best way to control the disease this season.

“A higher percentage of immunized employees is certainly part of dealing with the challenge faced by Alberta Health Services, but we also need to be diligent about the other aspects of influenza control,” she said. “UNA was pleased that Mr. Horne rejected the idea of a mandatory vaccination program, which we believe is both unethical and likely to be ineffective,” she added.

UNA encourages the minister to emphasize other measures that are essential to controlling the disease, especially ensuring there is adequate capacity in the health care system to handle a surge of patients as happens every winter during flu season.

“If we have patients in hallways and crowded three or four to a room because of lack of capacity and staff, infections are more likely to spread,” she explained.

Smith also urged Horne to encourage Alberta Health Services to stop pressing employees who are ill to return to work too quickly because of staffing shortages.

“Obviously, going to work when you have the flu is going to spread the flu,” she said. “AHS needs to stop pushing employees who are sick to come back to work too quickly.”

Smith questioned the cost and complexity of tallying the number of health care workers who have been immunized at hundreds of health care worksites throughout the province and providing regular updates to the public, as Horne promised.

“If resources are limited, we need to concentrate on frontline health care, not on trying to blame working people for structural flaws in the system caused by under funding and poor planning,” she stated. 

“If Mr. Horne plans to publicize immunization rates at worksites, he should also publish the percentage by which those facilities are under staffed and over capacity,” she concluded.