Flu now rampaging in long-term care facilities nationwide, officials confirm

CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., MPH
CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., MPH

Long-term care facilities across the country are being hit hard by the seasonal flu, due in part to a problem with this year's vaccine, federal officials stated late last week.

Adding to the woes of long-term care providers and residents: The main virus this year is a strain of H3N2, which is especially dangerous for older adults. This could be a bad season even compared with other years when H3N2 was prevalent, some indications suggest. For the first full week of January, people 65 and older were hospitalized at a rate of 91.6 per 100,000, according to the CDC. The rate was 79.1 per 100,000 for the same week in 2013, the last time H3N2 was predominant.

Illustrating the overall situation, an article in Friday's USA Today highlighted how long-term care facilities have been affected in some states. Staff and residents at one Iowa facility were “stunned” at how quickly the virus spread, contributing to the death of two people. Emergency departments in New Jersey recently were forced to divert patients because flu cases had them at capacity.

Residents at Seabrook, a New Jersey continuing care retirement community, told USA Today that they are glad they received the high-dose flu vaccine. Research has shown it is most effective for long-term care residents. However, the facility still has stepped up infection control measures.

Vaccination is only 23% effective at warding off the flu this year, according to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. This compares with about 60% effectiveness in good years, the agency noted in Jan. 15 press release. The issue this year is that the dominant viral strain is “drifted,” meaning that it underwent genetic changes and is resistant to the vaccine that was developed in the spring.

The flu does not peak at the same time each year. It's possible that this season will improve going forward, but it's also possible that the worst is yet to come, said Joe Bresee, M.D., chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch in CDC's Influenza Division. He does believe we now are in “the meat of the season,” USA Today reported.

The CDC is urging all people to get vaccinated, despite the limitations of this year's shot. The agency also recommends that healthcare professionals begin antiviral treatments promptly if flu is even suspected in people at high risk for complications or death.