How to Keep the Flu and Other Viruses Out of your Community
The country’s annual flu epidemic has begun building momentum for about a five-month journey that will keep some workers from working, children from going to school and seniors at their bedsides.
Influenza or flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe, cautions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While prime flu season is usually in November and December, the virus can begin making its presence in late October and run through May. It’s no secret that seniors, young children and those with certain health conditions are at high risk for serious flu complications.
While the flu bug and other respiratory illnesses occur more predominantly during fall and winter seasons, another virus can make its rounds at the same time. Norovirus, a highly contagious virus, inflames the stomach and intestines and causes victims to have stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. It is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States and sends 56-71 56,000-71,000 to hospitals each year and is blamed for 570-800 deaths, according to the CDC.
Like the flu, it’s nothing to take lightly.
Flu, norovirus seasons require an action plan
Kathy Barone, the executive director at Brookdale’s Eden Estates in Bedford, Texas, remembers an outbreak of norovirus at the assisted living community two years ago. About 10 percent of the community’s population contracted the virus, which can spread quickly in small populations.
After about 20 residents got sick, Barone put a plan into action that quickly got the community back on its feet. After the health department was notified, the dining room was shut down and interaction between residents was limited. A few days later, the virus was eradicated.
“Through taking these steps, shutting the dining room down, limiting the access residents had with each other, we pretty much eliminated it within a week,” Barone said.
Using disposable utensils helps reduce the spread of infection
A key to controlling the virus was switching to a disposable food serving plan, Barone said. With the dining room closed, residents were served in their rooms using plastic utensils, plates and cups. Once the meals were finished, everything was bagged, sealed and tossed in the trash.
Barone said that preparing and implementing a defense for the norovirus is similar to that of fighting flu outbreaks. Each September, she creates a battle plan that includes precautions for not only the residents but also the associates.
“All it takes is one person to expose everybody there,” she said. “The problem with these viruses is that you feel sick one day and good the next, and then it comes back. If residents feel good, they will return to social activities, but that’s not ok. They need to wait at least 48 hours before they return to a group.”
The following steps will help maintain health when viruses arrive
Barone recommends the following 10 steps to help maintain a healthy senior and assisted living community when flu and norovirus make the rounds:
The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccination for almost everyone six months and older, even when the viruses the vaccine protects against have not changed from the previous season. Barone also encourages that residents get a vaccination to prevent pneumonia. She also believes associates should be vaccinated as well.
When a resident has the flu or norovirus, it’s a best practice to isolate the residents to his or her apartment. Enabling the resident to participate in social settings will increase the likelihood that the illness will infect others. To prevent further interaction, meals should be hand-delivered to the isolated resident.
Wear Protective Clothing
Associates who have contact with an infected resident are required to wear gloves. If the virus is airborne, associates are required to wear masks and gowns.
Send Sick Employees Home
Associates who are sick should not be allowed to come to work. “If they come in and are sick, they have to go home and have a release from the doctor before they can return,” Barone says.
Hand-washing and Use Germicides
Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs in most situations, says the CDC. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or germicide that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Barone says that germicides are placed at every entrance of Eden Estates to encourage residents, guests and associates to stay germ free.
Each year, Eden Estates sends out a letter to families of residents encouraging them to take precautions and avoid visiting if they are sick with the flu or other illnesses. Visits by children when residents are sick are discouraged. The letter also informs families about the precautions the community takes to prevent the spread of illness.
Barone’s rule of thumb is that if 10 percent of the residents are sick, then the community uses disposable eating utensils and dishware. The dining room is shut down and the community’s china, dishware, glassware and utensils are shelved in favor of one-use plates, cups, forks, knives and spoons.
Disinfect the Community
Disinfect the building from top to bottom using approved products. This measure will safeguard the property against the spread of germs throughout the season.
Before the flu and virus season begins, gather associates and go over the plan, including how to prevent and how to control illnesses. It’s also a good idea to offer a flu clinic for residents.
When an outbreak occurs, it’s important to call the health department and to document each case thoroughly.
Aggressive action and preventive measures, says Barone, are keys to keeping the flu, norovirus and other illnesses out of assisted living and senior care communities.
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