There appears to be an indirect upside to all the mask wearing and social distancing: less flu activity in nursing homes and overall.

“Currently there is very little flu virus circulation this year compared to what we would expect to see in December,” Amy Parker Fiebelkorn, a senior epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Immunization Services Division, told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Thursday.

Amy Parker Fiebelkorn

She cautioned that it’s not yet clear if the flu is off to a delayed start or the low levels will represent the season as a whole. Also, the pandemic likely has influenced testing priorities and capacities, which can make flu data interpretation complicated, she noted.

Still, COVID-19 mitigation measures such as handwashing, mask wearing and social distancing may be having an impact on flu activity, she stressed.

“I think activities that occur outside the work setting, outside the long-term care facilities, are a factor as well,” she added. “When you think of employees not having large get-togethers or going into crowded settings that they might have in years past. They are not then bringing flu virus into long-term care settings.”

While the flu figures are encouraging, she said it is too early to get complacent. “l don’t want people to get too comfortable because we can’t predict what might happen,” she said. “There are many months remaining in the flu season. We just want to make sure everyone is vaccinated against flu. That’s our best protection. And we want to ensure healthcare personnel caring for residents in long-term care facilities and the residents themselves are up-to-date on their flu shot.”

Record manufacturing

This year has seen a record number of vaccine doses manufactured, she said. A total of 194 million to 198 million doses are expected this year, and the United States already has administered 188 million doses.

People over age 65 have the highest flu vaccination rate, she noted.

“The messaging has really stuck with our older adult population,” she said. “Even though flu vaccine has moderate effectiveness, particularly in older adults, the benefits are so numerous.”

Those benefits include lessening the severity and duration of the flu, preventing hospitalization and fending off flu-related complications such as pneumonia, she said.

Never too late

It is never too late in the season to get a flu shot, she pointed out. And to increase vaccination rates among staff, long-term care facilities can consider offering on-site vaccinations, providing them at low or no, cost and extending the vaccinations to nonclinical personnel and family members of staff.

Because the CDC is a federal agency, it is not allowed to require vaccinations, she said. But facilities with mandatory policies have higher success rates with vaccinating their staffs against the flu, she said. And AMDA ­– The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine in 2018 updated its policy statement to support mandatory flu vaccinations for long-term care personnel, she noted.