Flu Season is Here: Are You Ready?

Flu Season is Here: Are You Ready?

A children’s hospital leader of infection prevention describes how pediatric institutions can be ready for flu season.

The CDC reports flu activity is low so far this year, but the height of influenza season is just around the corner. Is your facility—and your community—ready?

Children's Hospitals Today chatted with Patsy Stinchfield, APRN, CNP, senior director of infection prevention at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul, to discuss the importance of vaccination and what to expect from the upcoming flu season.

Flu season is underway. What are you seeing so far and what should we expect from this year's flu season?

That's one of the biggest questions we get: ‘What is this flu season going to be like?' If I had a crystal ball, I could answer that question. What we do know about influenza is that it's an extremely complicated virus and can very easily shift from one strain circulating to the next. Right now, we have diverse strains circulating, and we can't tell quite yet which is going to be the predominant strain.

The good news is—at this point—it looks like what's circulating in the United States is what we have in the vaccine. The World Health Organization put a pause on what we were putting into the North American flu vaccine based on some changes that happened in the southern hemisphere, so we're hoping those changes are going to make a difference and be a good match for us this year. As always, time will tell.

Does that uncertainty make it more difficult to impress upon the public the importance of getting the flu vaccine?

It's certainly one of the myths that we push up against every year with influenza.

We wish the flu vaccine was 100% effective, but there really isn't any vaccine that is 100% effective. The general range is somewhere between 40% and 60% effectiveness. We would like to see that higher, but here's what's important: even though we don't have a perfect influenza vaccine, if you don't get a flu shot, it's zero percent effective. It is the best tool we have.

The CDC did some modeling and found that if we could increase the number of people who get the flu vaccine by only 5%, we could avert 4,000 to 10,000 hospitalizations every year.

Sometimes health care workers might be so busy caring for their patients that they miss out on the vaccine themselves. Why is it so important for them to get vaccinated?

One of the critical aspects of influenza is that you can pass it on to other people before you have any onset of symptoms. You don't even know you are incubating influenza and you're going to be around newborns, the elderly, people with breast cancer and on chemotherapy. You're risking exposing them and anyone else you may encounter in public to the flu virus.

That's why it's so critical for children's hospitals' staff to not only protect themselves, but to protect the people around them. I could be coming down with the flu and walk into the NICU and expose some of those babies who've been fighting for their lives for two months already. Getting a flu vaccine helps prevent that.

The Minnesota Department of Health recognized Children's Minnesota for achieving high influenza vaccination rates (greater than 90%) among facility employees during the 2018-19 flu season. What advice would you give hospitals looking to boost their vaccination levels?

You need to have a multimodal approach. You can't just say we're having a flu clinic and you need to come to us. Of course, we do that—we do big mass flu shot clinics—but you also must bring it to them and make it convenient. You have to offer lots of different time windows: various hours of the day, evenings, nights and weekends.

We have a program called unit-based vaccinators. We have a flu champion in every single unit, and they go through an educational session to learn what's new with the flu vaccine. They are the vaccinator on their floor—they vaccinate their employees or any staff member who needs it. They also are available to vaccinate any of the parents of our patients. Often parents don't want to leave their child to go out to get a flu shot, so we'll give it to them right there on the floor.

It's about doing the right thing and being proud of it. We share vaccination rates and compare them across units. We have a recognition ceremony like the Oscars, and our CEO talks about our accomplishments around flu safety. It takes a lot of effort, and there's a lot of different ways to approach it but I think it's been helpful in spreading the message about the importance of flu vaccinations.

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