How Facilities Can Prepare for Flu Season Amidst COVID-19

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By Scott Cormier

In 2017, the British Medical Journal published a report stating that healthcare facilities around the world are “woefully unprepared for the next infectious disease outbreak.” 

Three years later, and COVID-19 needs no introduction. The virus has ravaged the United States these past nine months with no signs of stopping. New reports from Johns Hopkins show that 39 states have reported more coronavirus cases in the week of Sept. 28 than they had the week before. But while COVID-19 has been unpredictable, the one thing we can count on this year is something we’d rather not: The annual flu season.  

The CDC estimated that during the 2018-2019 flu season, 35.5 million people fell ill with the flu, 16.5 million went to a healthcare provider, 490,600 were hospitalized, and 34,200 died. The CDC’s flu season preparation page states, “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu this fall and winter is more important than ever.” 

We don’t yet know the impact the flu will have on the world this year. As Scientific Americannoted earlier this year, flu season could increase or even double the burden on healthcare facilities during COVID-19. Or, Americans’ healthy handwashing and social distancing habits could actually lessen the burden. Regardless, healthcare facilities must be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Here’s how your facility should prepare this flu season. 

Designate Messaging and Communicate 

Communication is one of the first steps to disaster prevention and preparedness. Helping COVID-19 and flu patients and your healthcare staff safely navigate within your facility can make a huge difference in stopping the spread. As your facility likely already has COVID-19 signage in place, include supplemental signage with information for flu season, procedures for those experiencing flu and COVID symptoms, prevention tips, and more. Utilize your signage and any other means to coordinate safe, distanced movement around the facility itself, near in-patient rooms, and in designated quarantine areas.  In addition, signage should be printed in languages that are used in your community.

Remember, as we have been during the current crisis, to communicate early, often and honestly with your staff and patients. Make sure people know what they need to know to stay safe in your facilities, train designated caregivers, and don’t let social media be their primary information source.

Be Diligent

Because healthcare facilities have increased social distancing, additional hand sanitizing and improved ventilation, your healthcare facility should be in a better position to reduce and eliminate hospital-acquired infections (HAI). However, you cannot be complacent. According to the CDC, “on any given day, about one in 31 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection.” Because COVID-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses and present similar symptoms, it may be tricky to differentiate.

As healthcare professionals, we’re aware of the key differences between COVID-19 and the flu, but it can and will be tough to differentiate without laboratory testing. The coronavirus tends to spread more rapidly and easier than the flu and can cause more serious illnesses in people with higher risk. Unlike the flu, the coronavirus can cause anosmia (loss of smell) or ageusia (loss of taste). The biggest difference of course is that there is a vaccine to prevent the flu, one that is readily available, at low- or no-cost, and effective. 

Prepare for Shortages

At the onset of the pandemic, facilities experienced difficulties acquiring enough PPE for healthcare workers. You should be prepared for the worst-case scenario to make sure you have enough PPE on hand. To do so, consider diversifying your supply chain. A primary purpose for a robust supply chain is to enhance a company’s ability to react to change. Some organizations adhere to the “sole source” approach and buy everything from one vendor.

In the case of a crisis, though, this means limited options for available products or services. Review your strategic partnerships to understand how they can supply your needs and how they can help introduce additional channels and partners, potentially outside of the healthcare market, to provide items that could become difficult to find. Most items will be used immediately – masks and gowns, for instance – but others need to be saved for a later emergency. Make plans for what to do with the more unique supply chain items such as air scrubbers or tents. These items, while not part of a normal flu season buy, will be good to have on hand no matter what the next few months brings. Prepare for anything and everything when it comes to securing your supply chain, just don’t put all your eggs in one basket. 

Reflect and Adjust

While the COVID-19 pandemic is new, flu season is a regular occurrence. Your emergency management team should have monitored past responses to flu season and made adjustments each year. If not, now is the time to do so. Continue to have conversations about what the facility needs to do today and tomorrow as the pandemic and “new normal” continues. Flexibility is key to address the current needs of the organization, as is reevaluating goals to understand how to best serve patients. 

Adjust accordingly as new information becomes available. Everyone will have an opinion, and guidance will differ, depending on the source – World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other organizations and experts – so pick one and control the conversation by utilizing a single expert source. Evaluate the plan often and make updates or corrections as necessary. This will ensure the plan is always improving and continuing to put safety first. It’s great to implement an infectious disease plan, but tougher to maintain it. Ensure all relevant audiences know their role and what’s expected of them through periodic orientations, training videos, newsletters and exercises. 

COVID-19 may be a familiar foe at this point in the year. The flu may be as well. But we don’t yet know how they’re going to combine to test our facilities’ resiliencies. We must be prepared for the worst to ensure our patients have the best possible outcomes. And please, get your flu shot

About the Author

Scott Cormier is the Vice President of Emergency Management, Environment of Care (EOC) and Safety at Medxcel, specializing in facilities management, safety, environment of care, and emergency management and provides healthcare service support products and drives in-house capabilities, saving and efficiencies for healthcare organizations that, in turn, improve the overall healing environment for patients and staff. Cormier leads the development and implementation of emergency management, general safety and accident-prevention programs for a national network of hospitals that Medxcel serves. 

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