Hard-line 'vaccinate or mask' 'flu policy still in place

12 April 2016

The district health board that suspended two unvaccinated nurses last 'flu season for refusing to wear a mask is currently sticking to its controversial policy.

Health sector unions challenged Waikato District Health Board's introduction of the hard-line 'vaccinate or mask' (VOM) policy leading to mediation late last year. The policy saw staff 'flu vaccination rates jump by 28 per cent but was described by some staff as bullying and punitive as unvaccinated staff who refused to wear a mask in clinical areas were threatened with disciplinary action.(see DHB's VOM policy below)

Lesley Harry, industrial organiser for The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO), said following  two constructive mediation meetings in late 2015 the unions had proposed a joint 'pro-active' vaccination campaign strategy for this flu season but the DHB had not responded.

Greg Peploe, the DHB's people and performance director, said that "differences" remained following last year's meetings with the six unions and the current policy would stay in place while these "issues" were progressed.  He said the DHB was currently in correspondence with the respective unions and "would prefer a resolution prior to the flu season". This year's national influenza immunisation campaign was launched on April 6 by Health Minister Jonathan Coleman. Early this week Harry said NZNO was still waiting to hear from the board on its vaccination policy intentions for this year.

Ministry of Health statistics for DHB staff influenza vaccination rates last season show that under its VOM policy Waikato DHB's vaccination rate jumped from 53% for all staff (52% for nurses) to 81% (same rate for nurses) last year.  The top vaccination rate was Tairawhiti DHB's 86 per cent (83% for nurses) and third was Auckland DHB's 76% vaccination rate (80% nurses). Neither Tairawhiti or Auckland boards used 'vaccinate or mask' policies. Northland DHB, which in recent years has implemented it's own mask policy with union involvement, was fourth with a nurse vaccination rate of 76% and an overall staff rate of 72%.

Peploe pointed out that the Waikato vaccination rate was well above the national average of 66 per cent and the DHB's intent was "to continue with the good progress achieved last year". "It is our responsibility to protect ourselves and our vulnerable patients from catching influenza whilst in our care," he said.

Harry said the improved staff vaccination rates of boards like Auckland and Tairawhiti had been achieved without "creating ill-feeling amongst the workforce". "Which is precisely what happened at Waikato DHB," she said. 

She also said Northland had improved their results due to a concerted joint effort by the unions and DHB.  "There was no big threat of disciplinary action or imposition of masks in Northland." 

Peploe said the Ministry of Health supported initiatives like Waikato's and was encouraging other DHBs to "actively support staff to be immunised or wear a mask during the influenza season".

Last year the DHB suspended three unvaccinated staff for refusing to wear a mask, one of whom lost their job. NZNO last year supported three nurse members when they refused to wear masks – two had been suspended and a third threatened with suspension. 

NZNO has said its position is pro-vaccination but anti-compulsion in all forms including compulsion in the form of a VOM policy.

Early last year the National Bipartite Action Group (NBAG) released guidelines for DHB vaccination policies that endorsed vaccination as the best protection available against influenza.

The joint guidelines were negotiated by unions and the 20 DHBs and set a new target of more than 85 per cent of staff receiving a 'flu shot each year. The parties also agreed that a "positive health message is more effective than negative, consequential or threatening messaging or activity" when promoting vaccination.



Waikato DHB's Vaccinate or Mask (VOM) Policy

Health care workers who are unable to establish that they have received the current seasonal influenza vaccination will be required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical or procedural face masks during the declared influenza season while undertaking clinical duties or being present in a clinical area.




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