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Flu Season Isn't Over. How Lab Managers Can Protect Patients & Staff

  • by Richard Clubb
  • Jun 1, 2020, 10:36 AM

Flu Season Isn't Over. How Lab Managers Can Protect Patients & Staff

Is the 2019-2020 flu season over? The CDC says "no." As of January 27, 2020 our annual flu season in the United States is still in full swing and expected to last several more weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

With this article we'll look at historic flu season trends. We'll cover some predictions the CDC has made for us this year regarding influenza and address our fears of a flu pandemic. We'll also discuss flu prevention and the flu vaccine, as methods to protect both your laboratory staff and your patients.

Historic Influenza Trends in the US: Is a Flu Pandemic Imminent?

There is widespread concern among the general public, within our government, and in our medical community regarding the potential of an influenza pandemic.

  • Pandemics are different than the seasonal flu epidemics we experience every year, as they affect nearly everyone in a country or region.
  • Flu pandemics occur when type A influenza strains mutate and spread rapidly.
  • The hallmark of a pandemic is a high fatality rate.

Peter Doshi, AM, wrote in 2008 about historic influenza epidemics. He noted that three influenza pandemics occurred in the 20th century:

  • 1918–1919
  • 1957–1958
  • 1968–1969

Many national governments, including the US, have tried to prepare for another flu pandemic. Here in the US, this preparation has led to the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

  • The CDC says we are not currently experiencing an influenza pandemic.

But will there be a flu pandemic in the future? No one can say for sure.

The family of flu viruses reproduces rapidly, with infected cells shedding new viruses as soon as six hours after exposure, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Therefore "the flu" hits patients hard and fast. It's also the reason mutations can arise so quickly.

The CDC's Current Flu Predictions

Per the CDC, influenza is currently active, and as of the week ending January 18, 2020 markers for the disease have risen slightly. Hospitalizations and fatalities are considered low.

  • The percentage of respiratory specimens that tested positive for influenza rose from 23.4% to 25.6%, roughly a two-percent change.
  • B/Victoria and A(H1N1)pdm09 are the two most predominant flu strains "making the rounds."
  • Visits to practitioner's offices for flu-like symptoms increased from 4.7% to 5% in the US last week.

In short, we're still in the throes of a moderate flu season. No pandemics are expected, but a focus on flu prevention and flu vaccination is essential to the health of your patients and your staff.

Meanwhile, Back at The Lab

As medical professionals, your lab staff probably has a solid educational foundation in sterilization techniques, cross-contamination, hygiene, infection control, and the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). We won't bore you with those basics here.

We think our time is better spent explaining some ways you can remind your staff about flu prevention. We'd also like to explain how to incorporate controls in the HR department, to decrease flu-related casualties (like the need for your staff to take many sick days this flu season).

Keep Your Staff on Their Toes This Flu Season

Phlebotomists and lab staff can be overburdened this time of year, as hospitalizations and reported illnesses are on the rise. Consider using these ideas to control the flu, and remind your employees about infectious disease control:

  • Host a twenty-minute flu safety meeting for every shift to remind them that flu season is still going strong.
  • Encourage everyone to disinfect their work spaces and cubicles thoroughly.
  • Double-check your PPE stock. Make sure everyone has access to gloves and masks that fit well.
  • Contact your hazmat transport service and get rid of any hazardous lab packs sitting around.
  • Encourage your staff to get vaccinated (more on that in a moment.)

We know it can be hard to get every employee under the same roof at the same time, much less get them all to a meeting! Larger hospitals and organizations will find it even more challenging. There are more ways to reach your staff:

  • Put a reminder in their paycheck or pay-stub about flu prevention. That's one envelope you KNOW they'll open!
  • Distribute a memo in-house.
  • Post fliers in your break rooms highlighting hand washing and flu prevention.

As laboratory management, you're responsible not only for the health of your employees but of your customers too.

Protect Your Patients with Educational Materials They Can Read.

The best way to educate patients about flu risks is a candid discussion between provider and patient. In a perfect world, every practitioner would have the time and language skills to communicate these risks to every single patient.

But whoever said this is a perfect world?

Medical professionals can be rushed this time of year. They're not looking to spend extra time in close communication with a flu-ridden patient either. And to top it off, the language barrier between doctors and patients is growing

  • Patients with limited English face significant barriers to communicating with practitioners.
  • Per the 2017 Census, nearly half of the people living in major metropolitan areas speak English as a second language.
  • Nationally, about twenty percent of the patients you see will be more comfortable speaking a language other than English.

Should your lab carry educational materials in languages other than English?

That boils down to your local demographics. A lab in San Diego is more likely to need Spanish patient education materials than, say, a lab in North Dakota.

  • If your practice serves a patient base that is more than 5% English-as-a-second-language, we'd suggest you offer appropriate flu education materials.
  • You can get them on the CDC website.

Finally, let's talk about flu vaccines as a method to protect both your staff and your patients.

Advantages of the Modern Flu Vaccine

Whether they're a patient, a family member or an employee, the CDC recommends that everyone (other than newborns) get a flu vaccination this year. The "flu shot" can reduce instances of flu illnesses, reduce doctors' visits, and reduce instances of missed work and school. It can also prevent flu-related hospitalizations. It makes sense that anyone working in a laboratory should be vaccinated!

  • As per the CDC, the influenza vaccine is lifesaving in children! This 2017 study suggests that "the flu shot" can significantly reduce a child's risk of death from flu infection.
  • Patients today have a choice between traditional vaccinations and intranasal vaccines. Needle-phobias can be a thing of the past!

In summary, the flu is here, now. But the spread of the virus can be managed! We're looking at several more weeks of flu season in the US. Make sure your staff and patients are armed with the knowledge to keep themselves safe from the flu this year.

At American BioTech Supply our mission is to provide a full range of temperature-controlled equipment to our customers across the laboratory, healthcare, clinical research, and pharmaceutical segments.

With more than 25 years of experience, we excel at developing customer solutions at competitive prices, while providing industry-leading customer service. We hope you've enjoyed our discussion of the 2019 - 2020 flu season. If you'd like to know more about our laboratory products, get in touch with us today!

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