As president of the British Columbia Nurses' Union, Debra McPherson is the public face of a labour group that represents about 32,000 nurses and health-care workers across the province.
Currently, she is part of a team that is negotiating with the Health Employers Association of B.C. for a contract to replace one that expired March 31, 2012. She's also spoken out about a recent announcement that health-care workers who come into contact with patients during flu season will be required to get a flu shot or wear a mask.
That policy, announced Aug. 23 by B.C. public health officer Perry Kendall, makes the province the first jurisdiction in Canada with such a plan. It is designed to increase the vaccination rate, currently less than 50 per cent, among health-care workers.
Ms. McPherson talked to the The Globe and Mail about this and other issues.
Did this announcement come as a surprise?
In the past, we've been very co-operative around the flu shot. We have consistently over the years recommended to our members that they avail themselves of the shot. And even run a clinic in our own office. It's not that we don't support the initiative, but we have always maintained it should be voluntary.
About a month before the announcement, we got called to a meeting and told there would be an announcement. But no further information or even a heads up when it would happen, then suddenly there it was – catching us quite by surprise and leaving us with many unanswered questions.
What are some of your main concerns about the policy?
One, for example, is the requirement to wear a badge or a sticker that says, 'I care, I've been immunized.' I find it offensive. I think [the rationale] was that it was a way for the public and managers to see who had got their flu shots. And we said, 'look, there are other ways this could be done that protect the privacy of the nurse' – because nobody wears their health record on their chest.
What are some of the reasons BCNU members might choose not to get a flu shot?
The literature is confusing around side effects … The literature is confusing around the impact of the mercury, one of the preservatives and stabilizers they use in vaccines. There is the issue of [the vaccination] not being 'all-virus' specific – so you may miss the virus, the one that's most lethal that year.
They [nurses] need to be able to draw their own conclusions from the research and literature and make their own choice on that. I have made my choice. I understand the importance of vaccines and herd immunity and I am willing to take my chances because of that. Other people may not get to that place.
You get a flu shot routinely?
I do, every year.
Where do things stand now with regard to the new policy?
The employers' policy is there. We are not going to challenge their right to have that policy, because they have provided alternatives [to getting the vaccine]. We challenge their methodology and we have asked for ongoing consultation. We've asked for a reconsideration on the badge issue.
We would still prefer that it be based on education and a positive incentive approach.
They [nurses] have a sense that they are being blamed and being targeted for all the remedial efforts when there are a whole lot of other things the employer could be doing around infection control generally.
Is what the BCNU calls "safe staffing" one of the key issues in this round of bargaining?
We're saying, 'okay, great, we want to see the infection-and-disease rate diminish in our facilities, but what are you doing to eliminate the staffing issue, to eliminate patients filling every hallway and corridor without additional nursing staff and without proper [hand] washing facilities?' Not only are we the brunt of the cutbacks but also now we're being blamed for being the possible vectors for diseases and nosocomial [hospital-acquired] infections.
Have infection-control-focused nursing programs been affected by cutbacks in recent years?
In many of the [health-care] authorities, you have one infection-control nurse covering several facilities. That's just not adequate. The facilities are huge and the issues need constant vigilance and surveillance. That can't be done when you have that large of a sphere of practice. We would want to see increases in the number of infection-control nurses to provide support and education and monitoring around infection-control practices in the workplace.
What are some key issues in this round of contract talks?
We want the baseline staffing looked at. We believe where there's persistent overcapacity – the majority of sites in Fraser Health and the Interior Health Authority are running about 30-per-cent overcapacity on a daily basis… they need to be having staffing that matches the number of patients.