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October 30, 2013

Area hospitals beef up anti-flu efforts

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The annual advice and promotions about immunizations against seasonal flu are prevalent.

And this year, health-care workers are required to take a dose of prevention under a state regulation that went into effect July 31.

Meanwhile, some local providers have cut flu-shot programs because of greater availability of immunizations at physician offices and pharmacies.

Under the new regulation, hospitals, state-licensed nursing homes and other facilities are mandated to require personnel not vaccinated against influenza to wear a mask while working in areas where patients or clients may be present.

Masks would be required when the state health commissioner deems influenza to be prevalent, according to the state Department of Health. The regulation is to protect patients from acquiring the flu from infected health-care workers.

“This law is good,” Peggy Benjamin, a registered nurse and immunization coordinator at Otsego County Department of Health, said Monday.

Most Otsego Public Health employees do get flu-shots, which is important because staffers work with vulnerable populations, according to Benjamin, who said she hasn’t heard much negative feedback about the new state rule.

Benjamin said one case of the flu was confirmed recently in Otsego County. Not all influenza-like cases are tested for confirmation, she said, and the seasonal peak usually is in February but has been as late as March.

Influenza, a severe respiratory illness, has been reported sporadically in New York state this month. Several area health-care officials said there isn’t much information about the 2013-14 season, but they nonetheless urged preventive steps, including getting a flu shot, washing hands and staying home when ill.

Flu epidemics happen every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, but the severity and timing of flu seasons are unpredictable.

Flu activity usually peaks in the United States in January or February, however, it can begin as early as October and continue into May.

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older.

“It doesn’t matter what the flu season will be, we should be protecting ourselves,” said Carrie Post, director of employee health at A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital in Oneonta.

Post has been reminding employees monthly since the summer that flu shots will be required by Nov. 1. Hospital volunteers and agency personnel will be required to get flu shots or wear a mask, she said, and she projected that 1,250 immunizations will be given.

When the flu spiked last season, the hospital asked employees to be immunized or wear a mask, Post said, and quite a few staffers stepped forward. The regulation has been fairly well accepted, she said.

Area health-care providers reported that demand is down for flu shots administered at designated clinics. Instead, residents are going to pharmacies or having shots during visits to doctors, they said.

Fox administered 118 flu shots at a clinic last week, Post said, but the hospital won’t be offering other clinics this season. Previously, the hospital offered two or three clinics seeing up to 500 patients each session, she said.

Delaware County Public Health isn’t offering any flu-shot clinics because of the wide-availability of the immunizations through other providers, Vera Buel, supervising public health nurse, said. Besides following recommendations for immunization, she said, best practices for prevention include washing hands and avoiding large crowds.

Benjamin said guidelines for thorough hand-washing are to create a lather with water and soap, rub between fingers and nails for as long as it would take to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Clean cloth or paper towels should be used for drying, she said.

Hands should be washed often, including after using the toilet and before meals, Benjamin said, and she recommended using hand-sanitizer in other situations.

Benjamin recommended directing coughs and sneezes into tissues or sleeves to prevent spread of germs. Droplets can travel 3 feet from cough and up to 20 feet from a sneeze, she said.

Otsego County also has been providing fewer flu shots in recent years and is reviewing whether to continue those immunizations, Benjamin said. The department had a surplus last year and ordered fewer dosages this year, she said.

However, the department expects a delayed shipment of flu vaccine this week and will be scheduling flu shots during regular immunization clinics in Oneonta and Cooperstown and at senior meal sites, she said.

“There are people who have always come to us,” Benjamin said.

Karen Huxtable, spokeswoman for Bassett Medical Center, said almost 71 percent of employees are immunized against the flu, which is ahead of the rate at this time last year. A handful of employees have an allergy that prevents them from getting the vaccine, she said, and an egg-less vaccine is expected to be available in about a month.

Last year, Bassett’s vaccination rate without the state mandate was 82 percent, Huxtable said. The center chose then to require employees to be immunized or wear a mask because there was a high prevalence of influenza around the state and in counties directly adjacent to Otsego County.

“Mandating employees be vaccinated or wear a mask is the right thing to do to protect our patients,” Huxtable said in an email Monday. “Influenza is extremely contagious and leads to thousands of deaths every year in this country.”

Bassett has seen few patients to date with flu-like symptoms, Huxtable said, and it’s too early to make predictions about the severity of the season.

“We encourage patients to be immunized as well as staff,” she said. “Some of the most susceptible people to seasonal influenza are young children and the elderly.”