There are times when information regarding resident and coworker health is important enough to share again. In February 2018, SeniorLivingU published a blog on infection control practices during flu season. We are republishing this blog, but with updated flu statistics. You’ll also find a flu pandemic guide that you can print and hang in a conspicuous location for everyone to see. Stay well!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity is high and, as of January 2020, widespread in all but five states. The CDC estimates that there have been at least 6.4 million flu illnesses, 55,000 hospitalizations, and 2,900 deaths from the flu this season. This includes 27 children who have died from the flu. Pennsylvania (where SeniorLivingU is headquartered) has seen a total of 25,362 confirmed cases of influenza.

To help you keep your staff and residents flu-free, we’ve put together important flu facts and tips for staying healthy during flu season.

How Does the Flu Spread?

The flu is a respiratory illness caused by a virus that is spread through respiratory droplets, which are expelled by coughing, sneezing, or even talking. You can catch the flu if droplets land on your mouth or nose. You can also be exposed to the flu if you touch a surface or object where droplets have landed and transfer the virus by touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.

A person with the flu is contagious from one day before they develop symptoms up to and until they are symptom-free, which is usually five to seven days after they become sick. The height of seasonal flu is typically October through February, although it can sometimes last as long as April or May.

If there’s an active influenza pandemic in your area, follow the steps in this handy printable download.

Flu Symptoms

Suffering from the flu is much more severe than suffering from a common cold. In addition to a cough, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose, flu symptoms may include fever and chills, headache, body aches, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Curing the Flu

Rest and fluids are highly recommended for anyone suffering from the flu. Many people think the flu can be cured using antibiotics. However, this belief is incorrect since the flu is caused by a virus, not bacteria. Therefore, antibiotics will not fight the disease. Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu®, Relenza®, and Rapivab® can be effective treatments if they are started within two days of getting sick.

Curb the Spread of Infection with Preventative Hygiene

Two of the best ways to prevent the spread of germs are proper handwashing and sneeze/cough etiquette. Keep reading to learn the proper way to sneeze or cough, as well as reasons to wash your hands.

Practice Proper Handwashing

Proper handwashing is the most important step you can take towards preventing the spread of infection. Not sure how to properly wash your hands? Follow the best practices below:

  1. Prepare a clean paper towel.
  2. Rub your hands together with soap and warm, running water to create a lather that extends two inches above the wrists. This should take 20 seconds.
  3. Wash the palms, sides, and backs of your hands and clean between your fingers, thumbs, and under your fingernails. This takes an additional 20 seconds.
  4. Thoroughly rinse your hands with warm water.
  5. Use the clean paper towel prepared in step one to pat your hands until they’re dry.
  6. Before disposing of the paper towel (and to limit exposure to new germs), use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

In addition to washing your hands whenever they’re visibly dirty, it’s important to remember to always wash your hands:

  • Before and after wearing gloves
  • At the start of work as well as throughout your shift
  • After using the restroom, assisting with toileting, or using incontinence products
  • Before preparing or serving food
  • Prior to and after eating
  • After wiping your nose, sneezing, or touching your face

Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers

If you’re not near a sink, you can also use alcohol-based hand rubs or sanitizers. These are very effective at killing potentially deadly germs and can produce less irritation than soap and water. They’re easy to use when moving from dirty to clean activities or when moving between residents in shared rooms.

If you used an alcohol-based rub or sanitizer, follow the steps below:

  1. Apply the sanitizer to the palm of your hand.
  2. Cover every surface of your hands, including the thumbs, fingertips, and between your fingers.
  3. Rub your hands together until they’re dry.

Proper handwashing goes a long way towards keeping your staff and residents healthy, even if it might seem unnecessary in some cases.

Practice Sneeze and Cough Etiquette

Another way to stay healthy during flu season is by observing the proper way to sneeze or cough. This starts with covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue (if you have one), or using your upper sleeves or the crook of your arm. Always wash your hands immediately after sneezing or blowing your nose. In general, you should avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes whenever possible.

Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home

Another tip for staying healthy during flu season is instructing staff who are sick to stay home. According to the CDC, workers who have a fever with or without respiratory symptoms should stay at home until 24 hours after their fever ends. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who has the flu will have a fever. Other symptoms might include headache, tiredness, body aches, or vomiting.

It’s important to develop a flexible policy to accommodate employees who are sick, especially during flu season. You can facilitate this by appointing a go-to employee who will cover for staff who become sick at work. All of these measures will help you avoid an influenza outbreak at your long-term care facility.

Keep Your Retirement Community Clean

This may seem obvious, but you should also make a conscious effort to keep every inch of your community as clean as possible. Make sure your staff are regularly cleaning door knobs, lunchrooms, telephones, and countertops. To facilitate this, keep essential cleaning supplies close at hand. These include:

  • Disposable towels
  • Soap and water
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Alcohol-based hand rubs
  • No-touch wastebaskets

Offer Staff and Residents the Flu Shot

Studies show that a flu shot can reduce the risk of flu illness by 50-60% among the overall population. Flu vaccines protect against several strains of Type A influenza, which makes people the sickest, as well as Type B flu viruses.

It’s strongly recommended that all assisted living staff get an annual flu vaccination. This includes not only nurses, but administrators, aides, foodservice employees, and custodial and housekeeping staff.

The CDC reports that long-term care professionals have some of the lowest flu vaccination rates in the healthcare community. Only 67.9% of long-term healthcare professionals got the flu shot in 2018-2019, as opposed to 79.8% of staff at hospitals and physician’s offices.

To encourage employees to get a flu shot, many communities offer low- or no-cost flu shot clinics to their employees. Similarly, assisted living communities will often arrange for a local health agency to come on-site and dispense flu vaccines for residents. Likewise, flu shots can be administered during a routine office visit by the resident’s primary care provider.

Raise Awareness Around Your Community

Creating awareness surrounding flu safety in the workplace is also key to keeping staff and residents healthy. There are several ways you can do this:

  • Hold an event (e.g. a luncheon) that highlights the importance of hygiene and cleanliness.
  • Put a sign in your lobby telling visitors to come back another time if they have the flu.
  • Establish a Flu Action Team (FACT) that includes your executive director, human resources, resident care leaders, and directors of dining, housekeeping, activities, maintenance, and admissions.
  • Stock up on personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Train your staff on how the flu is spread in the workplace and how they can prevent transmission to coworkers or residents.
  • Limit visitors or large resident gatherings as necessary.

Want more tips for staying healthy during flu season? Check out our flu prevention fact sheets. You can also contact us with any questions or concerns you might have.