October 15, 2013

Health-care providers take steps to fight flu


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Health-care providers across the region are preparing for increased mandates to protect themselves — and their patients — from the influenza virus.

The New York State Department of Health is requiring all health-care workers who have not been vaccinated against the flu to wear protective masks during the flu season while working in areas where patients may be present.

“When the commissioner (of the State Department of Health) gives the word (that the flu season is prevalent in a particular area), then we need to be up and running (with the new policy),” said Joanne Swiesz, director of Patient Services for the Clinton County Health Department.

“It’s our way to help protect the public,” she added. “If we’re going to talk the talk (by recommending the public receives flu vaccinations), then we need to walk the walk.”

The Clinton County Health Department and other health-care facilities across the region have been promoting flu vaccines for staff members over the past several years, but the formalized requirements from the State Health Department will enhance statewide record keeping, Swiesz noted.

“As we submit more formal reports, the state will have a better handle on how many (providers) received their vaccinations,” she said.

The increased emphasis on flu vaccinations will enhance the department’s efforts to educate the public about the importance of vaccinations and the dangers of the virus, she added.

“The flu can be very dangerous, especially for the elderly and the very young,” she said. “Today, there are so many different ways to deliver the vaccine, (including) high-dose vaccines for people over 65, which is very effective in protecting seniors.”

CVPH Medical Center has also begun emphasizing the new mandates by recently offering a free clinic for all staff members.

The hospital has been providing flu vaccines for its employees and volunteers for several years, with as many as 1,500 people receiving the shots annually.

This year, more than 1,600 people received the vaccine during the one-day clinic, and the shots remain available for those who have not yet been vaccinated.

“We’ve always believed this is an effective safety measure for our patients,” said Erica Wood, infection-prevention manager for the hospital. “This year, we have adopted the new policy (of requiring staff members to wear masks if they have not received the vaccine).”

That policy will be initiated on Oct. 31, Wood noted.

Nationwide, fewer than half of all health-care workers are vaccinated against the flu. Although both the Clinton County Health Department and CVPH respect the wishes of those workers who choose not to be vaccinated, Swiesz and Wood both acknowledged the benefits of increased vaccinations.

Another factor to consider at health-care settings is the arrival of visitors and family members. If people are not feeling well, they should not visit a health-care facility, and if there’s any suspicion that a visitor may be coming down with something, masks are usually available at the entrance of facilities.

“The new requirement is meant to protect us (providers) as well,” Sweiz said of patients who may come into the health-care setting not knowing they have the influenza virus.

“People often mistake the cold for the flu, but there is a major difference between the two,” Wood said. “When you’ve got the flu, you know it. You’re sick for several days; your whole body feels like it’s getting beaten up.”

Even still, people can carry and spread the virus before they actually come down with symptoms, she added.

Hospital staff members are required to wear protective masks in areas of the facility where infection is a high priority, but on Oct. 31, providers who have not been vaccinated against the flu will be required to wear masks whenever working with patients.

There have been no confirmed cases of the flu in the North Country this season, but providers are recommending that everyone receive a flu vaccination. There are no vaccine shortages; they are available at most pharmacies across the region.

The flu season typically runs from autumn to early spring in the North Country, with numbers usually peaking after the new year. A single vaccination covers the entire season, but it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective once a person receives the dose. 

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