With flu-related deaths reaching the epidemic level, health care facilities across the nation are using every tool available to combat the spread.
Health care workers provide the front line of defense, so hospitals and nursing homes launch annual campaigns to see that their employees get flu shots.
This year, some have gone as far as firing nurses and aides who refuse the vaccine. While none of the facilities contacted in this region has gone to that extreme, the prevention-awareness level is high.
At Laurel View Village nursing home near Davidsville, all employees are required to wear surgical masks while working near residents. Visitors are restricted to immediate family members, Administrator Ginger Barnes said.
Masks are required for all non-vaccinated employees at Arbutus Park Manor nursing home.
Altoona Regional Health System this week announced all visitors must be at least 18 years of age and a member of the patient’s immediate family or a caregiver for the patient. Only two visitors are permitted with a patient at any time. In the maternity department, visitors must wear surgical masks at all times, Chief Medical Officer Linnane Batzel said.
None of the nursing homes reported alarming flu outbreaks. Even at Laurel View, Barnes said the flu is “not as bad as we understand a lot of places are seeing.”
At Arbutus, there have been only four confirmed influenza cases, Administrator Rick Wilson said.
Many of the restrictions are part of overall prevention programs, which include signs on all entrances reminding the public not to visit if they have flu symptoms or other illness. Cleaning and disinfecting maintenance has been stepped up at many facilities.
The precautions are important because hospital patients and nursing home residents are depending on the health care workers, local public health expert Dr. Matthew Masiello said.
“We are in a job setting where there are some very sick people,” Masiello said. “We are setting them up not only for the illness they are in the hospital for, but also for something that is potentially very dangerous.”
Even for the otherwise healthy worker, influenza can have serious consequences, Masiello said.
“Thousands of people get hospitalized every year, and more than a few die from influenza,” he said. “Health care workers need to protect themselves as any other individual should.”
Employee vaccination rates at area hospitals and nursing homes contacted by The Tribune-Democrat are near or above the national average of 63 percent.
Although several were still compiling the numbers, most estimated in the 70 percent range and above. Laurel View had 100 percent participation among its nursing home employees and 88 percent throughout the organization, Barnes said. Somerset Hospital had a 37 percent increase in its employee vaccination program.
AT Meadow View Nursing Center in Berlin, Somerset County, employees taking advantage of free flu shots were entered into a drawing for a $100 gas card, Administrator Tammy Leister said.
“We had over 95 percent acceptance of the vaccine from our employees,” she said.
Masiello does not endorse firing health care workers who refuse flu shots. Responsibility, he said, starts at the top.
“The way I look at that: We have failed as a health care system in giving them all the information that they absolutely need to make the right decision,” he said.
His concern goes beyond the current flu season. Bugs like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian influenza, H1N1 flu and vaccine-resident tuberculosis have shown the global nature of new diseases.
“It is a small world,” Masiello said. “If we have a problem with the (seasonal) flu vaccine, we are not really preparing ourselves for the next wave of tuberculosis or a new flu.”
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