Cloudy with chance of flu
For many parts of the United States, this winter has been a weird one — if you can call it a winter at all.
On Christmas Eve, I stood in line at a store with a man wearing shorts and flip flops. FLIP FLOPS. In Wisconsin. Usually by December 24, most of the state is already buried under several inches, if not feet, of snow, and its residents are waddling around looking like green and gold versions of the Michelin Man.
This mild winter has it's downsides, of course. If you're into winter sports, or having a Christmas that actually looks Christmas-y and not like a drizzly March day, this season has probably been a bummer. But for long-term care providers, this mild winter might be a blessing in a grey and rainy disguise.
This year has seen the slowest start to flu season in the United States in five years. And it makes sense — the flu virus hits the hardest when it has a cold and dry environment to live in. Some experts suspect this year's absence of those cold temperatures the flu bug loves so much might be the cause of this sluggish flu season.
An unseasonably warm winter shouldn't be an excuse to let up on your flu prevention strategies, of course. Educating staff on proper hand hygiene, stepping up your surface sanitization game and encouraging flu vaccinations (and offering alternatives, like protective masks, for workers who aren't vaccinated) are all crucial weapons in your flu defense tool box.
As many parts of the country have seen over the past few weeks, winter has returned in its usual snowy and icy fashion (even if just for a few days — my car's temperature gauge showed it hit 45 this week). So, too, must the flu season eventually peak.
Scientists who track flu data say the 2015-2016 flu season is likely to peak in February, compared to the December spike typically seen. And while that peak is predicted to be a mild one, mild simply refers to the number of people who fall ill with the flu over the course of the season — not how it affects individuals. A “mild” season isn't a reason to forego a flu shot, researchers emphasize.
While the warmer winter temperatures may be a sign of a changing climate, a late and mild flu season doesn't necessarily predict how the disease will take hold in the coming weeks.
An ounce of prevention can still make a world of difference, and the relatively slow start to flu season isn't a sign that you should ease up on your flu prevention practices. Just think of this winter as a little bit of extra flu prevention help from Mother Nature.
Emily Mongan is Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow her @emmongan.