Senior living and care communities have felt the full brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic; according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, adults aged 65 or more years, on average, account for 80% of COVID-19 deaths, despite accounting for only 16% of the U.S. population. If the coronavirus wasn’t enough, flu season is on the horizon, and viral infections such as influenza are among the most common causes of death in eldercare communities.
Most of society has come to terms with the flu, normalizing its existence because of its low mortality rate among the healthy. For elderly and other at-risk individuals, however, influenza is incredibly serious and can result in complications, even death.
The flu and COVID-19
On average, the flu kills between 35,000 and 65,000 people a year, most of which are over the age of 65 and live in senior care communities or skilled nursing facilities. Coupled with the highly contagious coronavirus, these facilities are at a critical moment that requires major preparation to ensure the health and safety of residents and staff.
According to the CDC, symptoms for both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 have many similarities, but there are key differences to note. Both viruses can cause fever, aches, cough, difficulty breathing, stuffy nose and sore throat, among other symptoms. One tell-tale sign of COVID-19 that does not present itself in the flu is the loss of taste or smell, although those symptoms are more likely to appear in mild cases of COVID-19.
By now, it’s well-known how people contract COVID-19 (close personal contact, touching a surface where the virus is present, droplets from a sneeze or cough), and many of these ring true for the flu as well. The coronavirus’ rate of infection, however, is much higher, and that virus is more contagious among certain populations, such as the elderly.
Testing, mitigation and prevention
Each year, senior living and care communities implement protocols that work to mitigate the flu’s spread as much as possible — from flu shots, custodial and chronic care procedures, and antiviral treatments. Although these efforts must continue, COVID-19 calls for more, starting with testing in all forms. The most common test for the flu and COVID-19 is human diagnostic, but other options can better prevent a large-scale outbreak.
Surface and air testing, for example, is an arguably more effective method to detect the presence of either virus in senior living and care communities. Testing the environment has many upsides; with easy-to-use test kits, staff members are empowered to check for exposure risks themselves, identify potential outbreaks, and mitigate the spread with much faster turnaround. Air and surface testing also can be used to detect the presence of a virus nearly five days before a resident or patient begins presenting symptoms.
The best thing long-term care communities can do is establish a sensitive surveillance program and strong outbreak response plan to get as much of a heads up as possible and make the necessary arrangements to rapidly and efficiently manage outbreaks. Introduce viral detection practices into daily routines.
Checking frequently touched surfaces, such as medication carts and door handles, is key, because these are potential hot spots for accumulation and, therefore, reliable detection of the virus. Areas with higher infection rates and rapid spread should increase their testing cadence to at least eight high-touch surfaces twice a week.
Equally as important to stop the spread are the contingency plans put in place to address a possible outbreak. Should an outbreak of both the flu and COVID-19 take place, residents and staff members should be prepared for issues including a shortage of medication, staffing challenges, and the need for increased supervision of residents to monitor for additional spread. Manage staffing with precision to minimize the exposure risk for both workers and residents.
Quickly isolate the infected, but ensure that they are as comfortable as possible; loneliness and fear can be a devastating byproduct of the illness for residents. Finally, have a cleaning regimen ready for quick and thorough wipedowns of the facility.
It’s key to keep family members top of mind; make sure staff members are providing them with the necessary information to ensure that they feel confident in the precautions taken to protect their loved ones.
Encourage family members and friends to get their flu shots this year. Although there’s no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, this is one step we can take to quell the spread of both viruses.
Shula Jaron, Ph.D., is CEO of Enviral Tech.