Birds are singing, snow is melting, and flu season is almost officially over. And at 8 a.m. on April 3, the Influenza Immunize or Mask policy implementation period for this flu season will end.

A poster explaining the policy

This flu season was the first time the Immunize or Mask policy for health care workers was put in place in Saskatchewan.

The end date was decided by the Provincial Influenza Immunize or Mask Policy Advisory Group last week, upon review of the latest influenza surveillance information. There may still be sporadic influenza outbreaks and during those times the Regional influenza outbreak management policy will apply.

This was the first year the Province mandated that health care employees either receive a flu shot or wear a mask in patient care areas during influenza season, and there was tremendous uptake of the flu shot by Saskatoon Health Region employees. Saskatchewan is the second province in Canada to implement such a policy.

“At the outset of flu season, our goal was to have 80 per cent of our employees immunized by March 31, which would have been an incredible improvement over our rate from last year, which was 67.46 per cent,” said Tennille Corbett, Manager of Occupational Health and Safety.  “We are thrilled to report that as of April 1, our overall immunization rate for employees, physicians, and Saskatoon Cancer Agency staff is 94.89 per cent.”

Overall in Saskatchewan, the provincial immunization rate for influenza for health care staff is estimated at 83 per cent – the highest the province has ever achieved in staff influenza immunization.  In 2013-14, only 60 per cent of health care workers were immunized.

“The purpose of this mandate was to protect our patients,” said Corbett. “We wanted to ensure that as health care providers, we were not risking passing influenza on to the vulnerable parts of the population, like newborn babies, cancer patients receiving treatment, or anyone else who has compromised immunity. Staff got on board with that by receiving a vaccination or wearing a mask.  They all helped keep patients and other staff members safe during this influenza season.”

Contributing to the success of this program were a number of factors, Corbett feels.

“Certification of peer nurse immunizers increased 30 per cent over last year,” she said, “and we collaborated with Population and Public Health to building a strong relationship for immunizing our health care workers at public mass clinics together.”

Some health care workers, like parts of the population, were not able to receive a vaccine; however, they showed great support of the program by committing to wearing masks in patient care areas.

“This was paramount to this season’s success,” said Corbett.

Flu season will be starting again in the fall, and at that point, the policy of Immunize or Mask will be reinstated once again.

“It is difficult to assess the true impact of this policy with only one year of data,” noted Corbett. “Traditionally speaking, in order to evaluate a new policy, at least 10 years is required to determine its impacts. Therefore, over the next few years, the outcomes will be carefully monitored along with intended and unintended consequences to see what this policy intervention has accomplished.”