Flu creates challenges, but staff can prepare effectively

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Paula Fenza
Paula Fenza

On average, roughly 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than half of those hospitalized are over age 65.  This season's influenza virus outbreak was no exception. In fact, according to the CDC, the flu season is the most severe it has been in 10 years.

Providers reported record numbers of outbreaks in post-acute care, skilled nursing and assisted living communities. Staff at these communities needs to be extremely cautious and alert to avoid the spread of influenza. Older adults are more susceptible to contracting the flu, and more likely to die due to complications from the flu. Healthcare providers in senior living or long-term care must be prepared to meet the needs of residents in the event of an infectious disease outbreak such as this year's flu epidemic. But what are some of the precautions providers can take?

Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging offers a program called PREPARE, a disaster preparedness webinar series, workshop, and toolkit that teaches senior living staff to manage natural disasters, and other public health emergencies (like the current flu outbreak), and trains participants as specialists, capable of teaching the information to others.

Staff working in the seniors housing industry can register online to attend an upcoming PREPARE workshop, where they can also earn Continuing Education Units, on Wednesday, Feb. 27 in Evanston, Illinois, or digitally download a toolkit at http://www.matherlifewaysinstituteonaging.com/health-care-professionals/prepare/

Workshops are held throughout the year, and other scheduled dates include: April 18, June 19, July 16, August 7, September 24, and December 10.   Other precautions which senior living communities can implement to limit outbreak include:

  • Having a plan for alternative staff to replace sick staff members • Implementing a plan to restrict visitor access into the building.
  • Being prepared to lock down the building entirely if needed
  • Taking overflow of sub-acute patients from hospitals if needed; and/or keeping sick residents in-house while hospitals are full
  • Cross training dietary staff to handle other responsibilities if they are short staffed
  • Knowing how to limit the spread of the virus … tips on not spreading the flu, etc.

The flu can be life-threatening for seniors in a nursing home, according to Victoria L. Braund, M.D., FACP, CMD, Medical Director, Mather LifeWays and Director, Division of Geriatrics Department of Medicine NorthShore University HealthSystem.

“In fact, the definition of ‘outbreak' is even more stringent for these facilities, than it might be at a school, or other public place,” said Braund. For those 65 and older, this season's flu shot was reported to be only 9% effective against the most common and dangerous flu bug, according to one of the most recent reports.

Even though the worst of flu season may be behind us, flu season officially lasts through April, and continued vigilance is the best plan for anyone in the seniors housing and care industries.

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