The headlines have been frightening: People of all ages have been dying of the flu, emergency rooms are full of sick people, and doctors are saying that it’s the worst flu season they have seen in years. For home health agencies and providers, the concern is even greater, as workers not only try to avoid spreading the virus to their patients, but also deal with the repercussions of working with individuals who might have the flu.
While you might have heard some news about the flu — the vaccines this year weren’t effective, most of the people dying from the flu received the vaccine, hospitals are overwhelmed, etc. — there is a lot of misinformation about the virus. Here’s what you need to know about the flu season of 2018 right now.
What Is the Flu — and Who Is Sick, Where
In a typical flu season, the virus tends to be a mixture of two types of influenza A (usually H1N1 and H3N2) and two types of influenza B (Victoria and Yamagata). However, CDC researchers say that most of the cases of flu this year are H3N2, which is typically the most severe — and lethal — of the flu strains. What has the researchers puzzled, though, is the fact that this year’s version of the H3N2 virus, which was initially discovered in 1968, doesn’t show any mutations that indicate why it might be more severe than usual.
That being said, what is clear is that this year’s vaccine was not a good match for the most common types of flu, which accounts for the fact that so many of the people who are ill or who have died did in fact get the vaccine. Experts predict that the vaccine will be effective at preventing the flu about 30 percent of the time, but in Australia, which recently had a massive flu season, the vaccine only worked about 10 percent of the time. Still, public health professionals still recommend that everyone get the flu shot if they haven’t already, as it does provide at least some immunity, and can potentially lessen the severity of the virus if one does get sick.
As of mid-February, doctors say that about 7.7 percent of the patients they see are diagnosed with the flu, which is higher than the previous record for seasonal flu, which was set in 2003-2004, at 7.6 percent. The current rate of flu patients is actually equal to that of the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic of 2009, but doctors are quick to note that particular season is not an equal measure, as not only was that virus not a seasonal flu, it was a new strain of the flu that had not yet been identified or studied. However, health professionals are concerned, as the death rates for seasonal flu in other years with high numbers of sick people are nearly five times higher than in mild or normal years. In a “bad” year, like this year, an average of 56,000 people die from the flu, or flu-related complications including pneumonia.
Keeping Your Patients and Workers Safe
Home health agencies do have some responsibility for flu vaccinations, as they are included as part of the OASIS and information related to vaccination rates is used by CMS. Keeping track of which patients have received the flu shot in your home health software is important, as it can help your team identify those patients who may need extra precautions, or who need to be vaccinated.
Beyond vaccines, though, it’s important to retrain your team in flu protocols to ensure that the virus does not spread, and that patients who need medical care receive it. Among the points to discuss with your team include:
- Hand washing protocols. Caregivers should be reminded to wash their hands regularly, use gloves when working with patients, and follow all infection control protocols as necessary.
- Using masks. Wearing masks when working with patients can help prevent the spread of the virus.
- Implement a sick leave policy. Do not allow your team to work if they are sick with any of the symptoms of the flu. Create a culture in which employees do not feel that have to come to work if they are ill.Wait 24 hours after symptoms have subsided to return to work.
- Educate providers on the symptoms of the flu, and when they could seek medical attention.
Your workers should be well versed in the symptoms of the flu, and when they or a patient should see a doctor. Anyone who has a fever accompanied by chills, fatigue, muscle and body aches, congestion, cough, sore throat, and headache should call their doctor. While many of the symptoms of the flu mimic those of a cold, you can generally tell the difference because a flu tends to come on quickly and with a fever; colds tends to build for a few days and do not include a fever.
We are still a few months away from the end of “flu season,” but armed with the right information and some precautions, you can keep your team and your patients healthy.
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