This fall, flu isn’t the only communicable, infectious disease that long-term care facilities are worried about. COVID-19 — now endemic in our population — is also a looming threat, with all signs suggesting that, in the US at least, the virus is back on the rise

Given that many residents at long-term care facilities are especially vulnerable to viruses like COVID because they live in a congregate setting and often have multiple comorbidities, fears around outbreaks are very real. Happily, though, there are several practical strategies facilities can employ to reduce the risk of an outbreak and mitigate its effects should one occur.

As prevention is key, a multi-pronged approach can support your efforts. You will want to prioritize educating anyone who enters the building about the symptoms of COVID. A good way to do this is to post signs near entrances and in high-traffic areas that outline what to watch for. In addition, it is helpful to provide face masks, alcohol based-hand rub for hand hygiene and information to stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines.

As important as it is to take precautions to lower the risk of an outbreak (defined as one positive case), it’s just as crucial to be prepared in the event one occurs. It is much harder to take the appropriate steps during an outbreak.  

The first step in preparing for an outbreak is to verify that you have an ample supply of testing kits. Ensure the tests have not expired, as that could interfere with their efficacy. Making sure you’re well-stocked with tests, will enable you to conduct rapid contact tracing as needed for anyone that has signs or symptoms of COVID.

Along with testing and taking steps to stop the spread, your facility is responsible for reporting the outbreak to your county’s health department. This can be done at the same time as contact tracing and further testing. If you need further support — more testing kits or information about the latest guidance for dealing with outbreaks, for example — your county’s epidemiologist and/or your state’s healthcare-associated infection (HAI) epidemiologist will be able to assist you.

As flu and COVID season gets underway, now is the time to ramp up your facility’s readiness for these potentially deadly diseases. Make sure you are taking appropriate steps to reduce the risk of an outbreak — including educating visitors and staff — and that you have solid processes in place to stop the spread in the event an outbreak occurs. By doing this now, you can create a positive culture of infection prevention and control (IPC) and keep your precious residents safe.  It’s crucial to have a well-defined and up-to-date infection prevention plan in place, especially in healthcare and long-term care facilities. Your infection preventionist (IP) plays a critical role in ensuring that your facility is prepared to combat outbreaks. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Regular Policy Review: It’s essential to review your facility’s written policies related to infection prevention regularly. The suggested interval of every six months is a good practice to ensure that your policies align with the latest guidance from authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Staying updated on best practices is essential to effectively combat outbreaks.
  2. Policy Alignment with CDC Guidelines: Monitor and align your facility’s policies with the most current guidance provided by the CDC or other relevant health authorities. This alignment helps ensure that your practices remain evidence-based and in accordance with industry standards.
  3. Resource Assessment: It’s not just about having written policies; your facility must also have the necessary resources to implement these policies effectively. Regularly assess whether your facility has access to the required staff, equipment, and supplies to follow the policies as written. Inadequate resources can compromise infection prevention efforts.
  4. Compliance with Internal Policies: Your facility must adhere to its own policies consistently. If state or federal surveyors visit your facility and find that you are not in compliance with your own established policies, it can lead to citations or regulatory issues. Regular auditing and monitoring of compliance are essential.
  5. Contingency Planning: In healthcare settings, staffing and equipment shortages can occur, especially during outbreaks. Ensure that contingency plans are in place to address such scenarios. These plans can include strategies for managing shortages, reallocating resources, and maintaining essential services while minimizing the risk of infection spread.
  6. Training and Education: Regular training and education for staff members are critical. The IP can coordinate educational programs to ensure that all staff are aware of and proficient in following the facility’s infection prevention policies.
  7. Communication: Effective communication within the facility is key. Establish clear lines of communication so that everyone knows what to do in case of an outbreak or resource shortage. This includes reporting and escalation procedures.

As the flu and COVID-19 combined season approaches, long-term care facilities must prioritize readiness to protect their residents against these potentially deadly diseases. Implementing measures to reduce the risk of outbreaks, educating staff and visitors, and having solid outbreak response processes in place are paramount. 

By taking these proactive steps, facilities can foster a culture of infection prevention and control (IPC) and maintain the health and safety of their precious residents. In this ongoing battle against COVID-19, preparedness is the key to safeguarding the vulnerable populations within long-term care facilities.

Buffy Lloyd-Krejci, DrPH, CIC, is the founder of IPCWell. Drawn to action to improve the infection prevention landscape for these communities, she utilized her over two decades of experience in the healthcare field and her doctorate in public health (DrPH) to launch IPCWell. She and her team have provided training, education, and technical assistance (both in person and virtually) to hundreds of congregate care facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.