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Beyond Vaccination: New Measures Needed to Protect Hospitals and the Public Against the Flu

By MARC M. BEUTTLER, MD

Every year at this time, you hear warnings that flu season has arrived. New data from the CDC indicates the season is far from over. So, you are urged by health authorities to get a flu shot. What you may not realize is how the flu can affect the hospitals you and your loved ones rely on for care.  

In January, the large urban hospital where I am an intern faced the worst flu outbreak it has ever seen. Nearly 100 staff members tested positive for the flu. Residents assigned to back-up coverage were called to work daily to supplement the dwindling ranks of the sick. Every hospital visitor was required to wear a mask upon entry. At one point, every patient in the medical ICU had the flu and the whole unit had to be quarantined. Because of this, the hospital was put on diversion – no new patients could be admitted.

Why was this flu outbreak so bad? Doctors are still trying to understand all the causes, but one likely reason is that hospital staff with symptoms came to work and became a reservoir for the virus. A majority of visitors and patients don’t get their flu shots, making matters even worse.

Once administrators caught on to the mess this year’s flu was creating, they took some new and aggressive measures. In addition to the free vaccines provided to employees every year, they performed daily symptom check-ins, encouraged sick days, and held an influenza town hall. After discussion with the State Department of Health, medical residents were provided free Tamiflu and urged to take it as prophylaxis. Only 40% picked it up. Residency directors asked symptomatic house staff to stay home. A positive flu swab meant a mandated five days off work. One month later, we are still required to check in daily and confirm that we are symptom-free via a text messaging system or a checklist circulated to each hospital floor. These responses were effective, and the wave of flu appears to have passed. We must now plan ahead to prevent the next outbreak.

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