If there’s one thing that typically separates the flu from other illnesses, it’s how fast it strikes. With the flu, you can go from feeling fine to completely down-and-out in a matter of just a few hours. For most people, this means a high fever, chills, extreme tiredness, body aches and headache. And, when you think about a workforce, a virus that easily spreads could infect a large amount of people and certainly wreak havoc.
St. Mary’s Hospital is just one organization in town preparing for an impact by the seasonal flu and more importantly the H1N1 strain this fall. It’s not necessarily the severity of illness that’s concerning; it’s the fact that at the peak of flu season this fall and winter, as many as 30 percent of an organization’s workers could be out sick.
“Right now we’re seeing less than 1 percent of our employee population out with H1N1,” says Kristin McManmon, Vice President of Operations for St. Mary’s Hospital. “What we think is going to happen is that number will rapidly increase this fall. We’ll potentially go to 2-3% then jump to 10% and possibly even 30%. You can believe we’re planning around these scenarios.”
In the spring of 2009, when H1N1 first appeared around the world, St. Mary’s activated its emergency preparedness team to determine how it would deal with a rapid influx of sick patients and the potential for a large percentage of employees to be out sick.
“We’ve had a pandemic plan for years,” says McManmon. “With SARS and the bird flu scare several years ago, the hospital created both a pandemic plan and a surge plan. We updated those plans to fit the current situation.”
Still, having upwards of 30 percent of the workforce out sick at the peak would mean substantial changes to daily operations.
“No matter what happens, we always have to maintain our high level of care and services including the delivery of babies, operating our emergency department and performing critical heart care,” says McManmon. “But it’s possible that patients with elective procedures may be asked to delay them a few days if the virus hits our staff particularly hard.”
To prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming a reality, the hospital is putting in place some new measures. First, it has begun screening all patients for signs of the flu. That means even if you’re coming in for a knee replacement, for instance, you will be screened for fever or other signs of the virus. If you have symptoms and your situation isn’t critical, you’ll be asked to wait until you’re well before having the procedure.
“That’s really done to protect our staff, other patients and the community. Particularly in elective cases, we’re waiting until their symptoms clear up to perform the procedure, rather than put our staff at risk,” says McManmon.
Other measures being taken to prevent the spread of illness include the temporary suspension of both the St. Mary’s student volunteer program and “Hands-on Health” program – a healthy habits hospital tour for second graders. Temporarily, “Hands on Health” will take place in the schools rather than at St. Mary’s.
“We also will likely have to look at limiting or screening visitors,” says McManmon. “People who are feeling ill should stay home instead of visiting their hospitalized relatives or friends so they don’t put their loved one or staff members at risk.”
So what lessons can other workplaces take away from the vigorous planning done by local hospitals?
“Preparation and information is key,” says St. Mary’s Nurse Epidemiologist Ellen Smith. “Make sure you know the signs and symptoms of flu, stay home until at least 24 hours after the signs of fever and talk about how your company would function if a large percentage of people would be out sick.”
Smith reminds us to always include prevention in the mix. The most important thing we can do to help stop the spread of illness is to cover our coughs and sneezes and wash or sanitize hands frequently.
“When you’re using soap, you want to take a pump or two of the liquid variety and rub it all over your hands. Make sure you are getting everywhere, even under your fingernails. You should do this for 15 to 30 seconds,” she says. “Then, using warm water, rinse all of the soap off of your hands and turn the faucet off with a paper towel to avoid recontaminating your hands. Do the same with the door handle when you leave the bathroom.”
And, if you can’t get to a sink, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are as effective as soap. Just remember to use a quarter-sized amount and rub your hands vigorously until all of the gel has evaporated.
Break Out: Flu Myths
- Myth: “The flu shot causes the flu.” Reality: The flu shot is a dead virus. There’s no way it can give you the flu.
- Myth: “The flu isn’t a serious disease.” Reality: It sends more than 200,000 to the hospital each year and 38,000 will die from it.
- Myth: “The side effects of a flu shot are worse than the flu itself.” Reality: You can get a little swelling or redness at the injection site or some minor body aches, but nothing as severe as the ten days of body aches, fatigue, and high fever that’s typical of the flu itself.
- Myth: “You must get the flu vaccine before December.” Reality: 80% of the time, flu season doesn’t peak until January or later. So it’s ok to get your shot in January or even February.
- Myth: “The flu shot doesn’t work.” Reality: There are years, like last year, when the flu shot wasn’t as effective in preventing the virus. But even in those cases there is still some protection and chances are you’ll get better much faster.
Break-out: Fight Back
Bacteria and viruses are behind the illnesses that make us feel miserable. Here are some tips to slow their spread:
- Wash your hands – properly and often
- Cough into your shirt sleeve
- Sneeze into a tissue and throw it away immediately
- Use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available
- Wipe down commonly used surfaces to minimize the amount of bacteria present
- Use paper towels to turn off faucet handles and open doors in the bathroom after washing your hands
- Encourage your kids to follow these tips as well
Break-out: It’s All About Your Form
To be most effective, hand-washing must be done a certain way. Here are some tips to squeaky-clean success:
- Apply plenty of soap and rub vigorously (>15 seconds – sing the “happy birthday song” twice and that should do it!)
- Make sure to wash under your fingernails
- Rinse with warm water
- Use a towel to turn-off the faucet and open door
Break Out: Who Should Get a Seasonal Flu Shot*?
- Children aged 6 months to 19 years old
- Pregnant women
- People age 50 and older
- People with chronic medical conditions
- Anyone else who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu
*The seasonal flu shot is available right now. New this year will be an H1N1 vaccine. Pay attention to local media to hear when that is available and who should consider receiving it.