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Flu Risk for Seniors in Nursing Homes

January seems to be a time of year when virtually everyone is sick. Colds and flus abound after the holidays, as family gatherings, friendly holiday events, and travel combine to transfer germs and other pathogens between different groups. No one is immune from the dangers of flu season, and chances are that you or someone in your family has felt the effects in the last few weeks.

For most of us, getting the cold or flu is incredibly unwelcome but not debilitating. We may be out of action for a few days, but eventually it dissipates and everything is back to normal. Others are not so lucky. That includes many seniors with weakened immune systems and other vulnerabilities that make a serious cold or flu far more damaging. It is no wonder, then, why nursing home residents and other elderly community members are strongly encouraged to get flu shots. This simple step can literally mean the difference between life and death for a resident.

Don’t Forget About Employees
Full protection of this vulnerable community does not end with giving senior resident the shot. It is also important for all those who come into contact with seniors to ensure that they are not transferring germs or exposing seniors to things which might harm them. Most importantly, the nursing home employees who work with seniors each and every day need to be extremely careful about their own contamination risks. Considering the potential for long-term harm, there is simply no reason why these employees should fail to take basic steps to keep nursing homes free of pathogens.

Yet, new reports indicate that we still have a long way to go before facilities that these risks seriously. For example, McKnights reported this week on how nursing home residents have been hit hard with the flu in 2013. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of flu cases for seniors over 65 years old is at 82 per 100,000. That is four times higher than the overall national rate of 19 cases per 100,000 people.

On top of that, the CDC Director was clear in noting that those statistics do not even tell the whole story, he quipped: “These rates are undoubtedly an underestimate because influenza-related hospitalizations can be missed either because the testing isn’t performed or because cases may be attributed to other causes of pneumonia or other things that may result from influenza.”

Making matters worse, records indicate that many nursing home workers are not even taking the basic step of getting a flu shot to protect themselves and the elderly residents they work with each day. The story suggests that only half of all nursing home employees have not gotten the flu shot–an egregiously high number when the cost-benefit analysis is taken into account. That vaccination rate is far below those in others in sensitive work environments, like hospitals. Doctors and nurses nationally average about an 85% vaccination rate.

The industry can and should do better.

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