A practical guide for flu prevention

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Ross Skadsberg
Ross Skadsberg

As we move through flu season, it's a good time to review your policies and procedures for minimizing the transmission of this highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. Long-term care facilities are particularly vulnerable for two reasons: 1) They have large numbers of residents and staff interacting in a common indoor space — an ideal setting for flu transmission, and 2) Long-term care residents, because of their age and often weakened immune systems, are more susceptible to the flu and more likely to have severe or even fatal reactions and/or complications.

A flu outbreak can create plenty of anxiety on the part of residents and their families, who are already sensitive to cleanliness. A recent survey commissioned by Ecolab found that overall cleanliness was far and away the No. 1 selection in criteria when considering a long-term care facility for a loved-one. An outbreak of the flu or other communicable disease undermines the confidence that families place in you. It can also impact your operations.

Between 5% and 20% of the population contract the flu each year, leading to an average of 200,000 hospitalizations and 49,000 deaths[1], with a disproportionate number of those being the elderly. The result is 111 million work days lost, at a cost of $7 billion in sick days and lost productivity[2]. A worker who contracts the flu will spend an average of 2.4 days in bed, 2.8 days missing work and another 3.5 days feeling sluggish when he or she returns[3].

Influenza is transmitted by directly touching an infected person or something an infected person has touched, or by droplets in the air or on surfaces, where the flu virus can survive for up to 48 hours. What can you do? There's a lot. Flu transmission is well-understood and preventable, but it requires taking proactive steps to minimize the risk.

Here's a checklist to get you started:

Take appropriate medical precautions

1)    Make flu vaccines conveniently available and encourage all staff and residents to get one unless there is some contrary medical indication.

2)    Keep antiviral medication on hand. If given within two days of the start of an illness, as directed by a medical professional, antivirals can reduce the flu's severity and the length of time that it is contagious.

Encourage good personal hygiene

3)    Provide easy access to hand soaps and sanitizers. Proper hand-washing procedures: rub vigorously for 20 seconds using soap and warm water, rinse thoroughly and dry with a disposable towel or air dryer. Use a towel to turn off the faucet, if possible.

4)    Proper hand-sanitizing procedures: Apply product to your palm and rub hands together until it disappears (15-20 seconds). Sanitizers should be used on visibly clean hands. Any organic matter should be removed using soap and water.

5)    Cough etiquette: Be sure to cover coughs with a tissue or sleeve to prevent infectious droplets from infecting others.

6)    Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth, which can transfer germs picked up from a contaminated surface.

Clean all surfaces

7)    Be sure that your cleaning products are effective against influenza and remove all organic matter that could harbor pathogens.

8)    Cleaning detergents should be rinsed away so they don't interfere with disinfectants.

9)    Wipe down frequently touched surfaces with a properly registered disinfectant. This includes: light and air control switches; faucets; toilet flush levers; television and radio controls; telephones; door handles; push plates, elevator and call buttons; tables and chairs; bed rails; all bathroom surfaces; and anywhere that food is prepared or served.

Don't give the flu a lift to work

10) Encourage staff to stay home when sick, and keep sick residents in their rooms to help prevent transmission to others.

These guidelines are in accordance with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

None of these precautions can guarantee that your residents and staff won't get the flu, but they can help to reduce the likelihood and severity of a flu outbreak. They will also help you ease the concerns of residents, prospective residents and family members who may want to know what steps you're taking to minimize the very real health threat that the flu poses. You can assure them that you share their concerns and explain the many ways that you and your staff are working to keep the flu from becoming an unwelcome visitor.

Ross Skadsberg, director of Long Term Care Marketing for Ecolab's Institutional business, is responsible for understanding the customer and market, developing products and program innovation, and positioning Ecolab as a business partner and thought leader with customers in this industry. He can be reached at ross.skadsberg@ecolab.com.

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm

[2] http://www.flu.gov/planning-preparedness/business/#_ftn1

[3] http://occmed.oxfordjournals.org

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