As we approach the flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is strongly urging long-term care facility staff to get a flu shot. According to a report by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA), the CDC is "embarking on a vigorous campaign this flu season, specifically focusing on increasing the number of flu vaccinations for staff at long-term care communities who traditionally show a low vaccination rate compared to other healthcare professionals." The CDC is focusing on long-term care community staff because they are the group of healthcare professionals with the lowest rate or vaccine coverage, at just 63 percent, compared with those who work in hospitals at 89.6 percent for the 2013-14 influenza season.
Flu shots important for more than just healthcare workers
The report also points out that it's important for all staff in contact with residents, not just nurses, to get the flu vaccine. Linda Mather, vice president of resident care at Integral Senior Living, reminds people, "We want to keep staff healthy. We want to keep the residents healthy. Many of them are frail and far more susceptible to a negative outcome should they get the flu." In the past, senior living facilities have been shut down or staff have been asked to work overtime during flu outbreaks.
Dr. Raymond Strikas, who works at the CDC's Immunization Services Division in Atlanta, also told ALFA that "health care professionals need to 'form a circle of protection' around residents, especially considering 90 percent of all flu deaths in any given year occur in the 65 and older population." Strikas points out that educating family and friends is important, too.
Family caregivers should get flu vaccines to protect themselves, loved ones
This got us thinking that family caregivers also should get the flu vaccine. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a yearly flu vaccine "as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease." Because the seasonal vaccine protects against the main flu viruses suggested by researchers, people who get the flu shot are most likely protected from the illness during the upcoming flu season. The CDC also recommends that people begin getting the flu shot by October, "to ensure that as many people as possible are protected before flu season begins."
Moreover, the CDC explains that the flu can make some members of the population sicker than others. "These people include young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions—such as heart, lung or kidney disease, nervous system disorders, or a weakened immune system. Flu vaccination is especially important for those people, and anyone in close contact with them." It is just as important for family caregivers to get the flu vaccine as it is for long-term care facility staff, as soon as possible.
What about Enterovirus D68? Are seniors at risk?
On a related note, there is much information about the Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) floating around right now. The CDC reports that from mid-August to Sept. 24, 220 people in 32 states were confirmed to have a respiratory illness caused by EV-D68. As the cases have been spreading across the United States, the CDC reminds the public that while infants, children and teenagers are most likely to become infected with enteroviruses, people with asthma are at higher risk for respiratory illnesses. Asthmatics should take their medicine regularly and maintain control of their asthma now, and the CDC recommends "they should also take advantage of the influenza vaccine since people with asthma have a difficult time with respiratory illnesses." This is just another reason that caregivers who have asthma should get a flu shot as soon as possible.
Steps to protect yourself and your loved ones this flu season
Of course, there are steps that caregivers should also take to protect themselves and their loved ones from respiratory illnesses. The CDC recommends following these steps:
- wash hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after changing diapers;
- avoid touching eyes, nose and moth with unwashed hands;
- avoid kissing, hugging and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick;
- disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.