Ontario nurses await mask ruling

Ontarians will find out this fall if hospital nurses who refuse to get flu shots will be forced to wear masks during flu season, The Free Press has learned.

That’s when an arbitrator is expected to make a decision after the nurses’ union challenged the legality of hospital rules that require staff to either get the flu shot or wear a mask.

“We are currently awaiting a decision on this matter. We except a decision sometime in the fall,” Shabnum Durrani of the Ontario Hospital Association wrote in response to questions.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association has challenged flu policies at a dozen hospitals but many more will be affected because they have adopted similar rules to try to curb the spread of influenza among vulnerable patients.

Those additional hospitals included London Health Sciences Centre, which plans to roll out the same sort of rules the coming flu season as those that raised the ire of the nurses’ union.

“Our planning for the coming flu season is the same as last year’s,” hospital spokesperson Mary Gillett said Friday.

The London hospital requires staff who don’t get a flu shot to wear a mask in patient areas from Dec. 1 to March 31 and can be extended, or started earlier, if the flu hits the community earlier and stays around longer.

When the arbitrated decision is announced, the London hospital will review it and consider whether any rules must be changed, Gillett said.

The Free Press left message for the nurses’ union Friday but was unable to reach anyone to comment.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association aggressively fought hospitals that required a flu shot or mask, paying for radio ads attacking policies of nine Ontario hospitals, including those in London, St. Thomas and Sarnia.

But many nurses support the shot-or-mask rules, including the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, which advocates for improved health care generally and the role nurses can play delivering it.

The union’s grievance and ads came while some hospitals with flu shot or mask policies had compliance rates jump way above historic norms, from barely half to more than 70 per cent.

Public health experts say those jumps are needed if we’re to reduce the deadly toll of flu each year. Some American hospitals have achieved near 100 per cent compliance after making a flu shot a condition of employment.