Guidance for social workers regarding vaccines, public health and the spread of misinformation

Introduction 

Both the Council of the College and Board of Examiners understand it is a stressful time with wide-ranging effects on the mental health, safety, and economic security of Nova Scotians.  The NSCSW believes that social workers must play an active role in ensuring that Nova Scotians have the correct, trustworthy, and updated information about COVID-19, so they can make informed choices and protect themselves and loved ones. 

Commitment to the Public Good

Given social work’s commitment to the public good it is expected that social workers are not involved in the spread of misinformation, and that they fully utilize evidence-based information, developed by public health experts and researchers from across the globe. There is overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 vaccines, which are approved for use by Health Canada, are effective and safe, and the risk of not being vaccinated is far greater than the very small risk of any potentially severe side effects related to the vaccine. 

The NSCSW strongly urges all regulated members to get vaccinated, trust reputable evidence-based public health guidelines and provide evidence-based care. Spreading misinformation or not following public policy and guidelines on vaccinations, masking, or health policy that puts the public at risk would likely be viewed as contravening the goals and values of the profession. 

The NSCSW’s goal remains to approach such situations on a case-by-case basis, rooted in context, and would engage in any matters involving a risk to the public from a learning perspective and look for ways to guide appropriate professional conduct. 

If a regulated member’s decisions are putting the public’s safety at risk, then the College would likely follow with a formal complaint and any consequences that follow should be expected.

Obligation to Clients Regarding Public Health

Private Practitioners 

As Nova Scotia continues to develop its strategy for reopening and resuming delivery of services, there is a common message for everyone – there will be a “new normal.” This will include accounting for physical distancing, ensuring appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), adopting proper cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and other measures to assist in reducing transmission of COVID-19 moving forward. Private Practice guidelines are designed to support the in-person delivery of private practice services and include guidelines for clinics, home offices and home services through the lens of the NSCSW Standards of Practice. These guidelines are current as of the date of publication, and reflect the rules and requirements for private practice social workers to provide services during the pandemic. In the event of a discrepancy between this information and the directives of provincial public health authorities, the directions of the provincial public health authority take precedence. As regulated health professionals, social workers are required to: 

  1. Follow all mandates and recommendations from Public Health and the Government of Nova Scotia regarding your personal and professional conduct. As a regulated health professional, you have a fiduciary responsibility to follow all civil orders that originate from any level of government. 
  2. Read and adhere to all communication from the NSCSW. The NSCSW continues to consult with stakeholders, including the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness (DHW) and the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH). The NSCSW exists to protect the public, and these guidelines are created to ensure the health and safety of both the public and social workers while instilling client confidence as they safely access social work services. Please note that although the province may permit businesses to reopen, this is not required. Registrants who believe that this would not be appropriate at this time are free to make their own judgment about when it is in the best interests of their client, the community and themselves to see clients again in person.

The complete guidelines for private practices can be downloaded here.

It is important to note that private practices are not included in Government of Nova Scotia’s Proof of Vaccination protocol, as regulated health services are considered essential. Following the guidelines linked above is essential for public safety.

Informing Clients of Vaccination Status 

Standard 1.2.1. states that social workers shall respect the self-determination and autonomy of clients, actively encouraging them to make informed decisions on their own behalf to the extent possible and given the situation. Clients may be experiencing higher levels of mental health issues regarding COVID-19, as services begin to reopen. It will be important for social workers to ensure that their clients have all the relevant information required to make decisions on their care. In addition, standard 2.2.1. states social workers shall maintain the best interests of clients as the primary professional obligation. 

Many of the services that social workers provide are exempt from the proof of vaccination policy.

Proof of full vaccination isn’t required for most places that don’t host formal gatherings and places that offer essential, non-discretionary services and activities, including:

  • healthcare services and health professions like doctor’s offices, dental care, massage therapy and physiotherapy
  • faith services
  • pre-primary to grade 12 school-based activities and field trips that take place during the school day (unless a field trip is for an event or activity where proof of full vaccination is required), before and after school programs and school buses
  • post-secondary institutions (universities, NSCC, private career colleges and language schools) unless they’re hosting events or activities that the public attend
  • mental health and addictions support groups
  • legislatively required meetings where public participation can’t be done virtually (like municipal council meetings where citizens have a democratic right to participate)
  • safety training that’s required for a person’s job and can’t be done virtually
  • places where government services are offered (like Access Nova Scotia)
  • food banks, shelters, family resource centres and adult day programs for seniors and people with disabilities
  • programs and services for vulnerable populations that can’t be offered virtually (except if meals are offered; meals can only be provided through takeout or delivery to people who can’t show proof of full vaccination)
  • general access to public libraries (like borrowing books and using computers)
  • public transportation

Where there is usually no compulsory requirement for a proof of vaccination from social work clients, social workers are strongly encouraged to work with their clients to understand the safety protocols that are place. Social workers are therefore encouraged to share their vaccination status, if this is required to maintain and build a supportive alliance. This is particularly important when working with involuntary clients who have more limited agency when working with their social workers.

Misinformation and Social Media 

Individuals, including social workers are using social media during the COVID-19 pandemic to stay connected and informed. The escalated use, and reliance on social media for information and staying connected in these uncertain times, increases the potential for its misuse. The following information on social media use during the pandemic was developed specifically for the pandemic

Professional Presence 

It is important to remember that social media is a public forum. This includes private groups, direct messages and messages to and/or from ‘personal’ accounts. When social workers make the decision to use social media they are entering a public space and must always uphold their standards of practice. 

NSCSW does not want to censor social workers. We support the appropriate use of social media. However, we want social workers to consider what, when and how they post to ensure they are not contributing to the abundance of misinformation or adding to the pandemic-related anxiety and panic. Additionally, social workers must be sure their posts are not giving the impression that they cannot or will not provide unbiased care. Above all, social workers must not post anything that could negatively affect the public’s confidence in the social work profession.

What is considered a professional post?

  • Posts that use respectful language demonstrating a positive image and is in keeping with the standards of practice and code of ethics.
  • Information from reputable, qualified and verifiable sources.
  • Evidenced-based views of subject matter experts and legitimately qualified sources.

What is not appropriate to share during the pandemic? 

  • Confidential information (e.g., information about a client, colleague, your workplace or others).
  • Inaccurate or harmful claims about COVID-19 (e.g., unproven health-related advice about the virus, treatments, and therapies, health care information based on personal opinion rather than scientific evidence).
  • Information that gives the impression that you are unable to provide unbiased care
  • Unprofessional, harmful or threatening comments that may incite anxiety, panic, fear or distrust in the social work profession and/or social and health systems.

How you say it matters

Sometimes it is not what you say but how you say it. A perfectly good message can go from professional to unprofessional simply by using:

  • Profanity and general expletives
  • Offensive comments that hurt others
  • Insulting language towards individuals, groups, communities and/or organizations
  • Dramatization that mimics anger (e.g. all caps, multiple exclamation marks, negative symbols or emojis)

Advocacy

Advocacy is fundamental for social work practice and is crucial during the pandemic. Every social worker is expected to be an advocate for their clients as outlined in their standards of practice. Social workers are expected to advocate in a manner that upholds the integrity of the profession and organizes and empowers individuals communities to have their voices heard. Social media can be an effective way to do so, but social workers must make considerations on the impact of using social media making sure they have informed consent of stories they may be sharing, have a through understanding of employment restrictions, and assessing potential impact. 

Before you post information related to the pandemic, ask yourself: 

  • Is this the right vehicle to share my thoughts? 
  • Is this information credible and does it benefit the public?
  • Does this reflect my professionalism as a trusted Social Worker?
  • Will this post add to the anxiety or panic about the pandemic?
  • Does the post reflect facts and/or evidence from qualified sources?
  • Will this post reflect poorly on my profession, colleagues, employer, union or others?
  • Would it be acceptable for me to say this face to face or in a room full of clients, colleagues or my family? 
  • Will this post violate my standards of practice, or a condition of my employment contract, or union contract?

What to do if you see an inappropriate post 

Every social worker has a duty to address conduct that does not meet the standards of practice and code of ethics. If you see an inappropriate post from a social worker that you know, reach out to them and talk about your concerns. If you need guidance you can reach out to the NSCSW at NSCSW@NSCSW.org.

What to expect from NSCSW 

NSCSW has a process in place to address these issues. If you see an inappropriate post from a Social Worker, our first action is to ask that you address it with the social worker, or their employer or union directly if you feel comfortable doing so. If not, please share your concerns with us by email at NSCSW@NSCSW.org.

We will carefully review the information that you provide and take action as required. Action may include a letter of guidance asking the social worker(s) to remove the content or, in the most serious matters, a letter of complaint that may result in professional misconduct.

Check First. Share After.

Visit Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy website for more information on stopping the spread of misinformation. 

*developed with support from Nova Scotia College of Nurses files 

 

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