This winter’s flu season arrived early and hit hard, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we should expect the season to continue for quite some time. With several strains of the disease passing from person to person around the country, infection control nurses must be more vigilant than ever to protect their patients and colleagues.
Tasked specifically with preventing patient infections in hospitals and clinics, infection control nurses are responsible for creating facility-wide sanitation plans, as well as directly instructing other nurses on proper prevention policies and protocols.
“One of the most important things we do year-round is promote the flu vaccine,” said Barbara Russell, RN, BSHA, MPH, CIC, President of the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC), and Director of Infection Control at Baptist Hospital of Miami in Florida. “We invest a lot of time into advertising and education to make sure our staff is vaccinated. When our hospital staff is vaccinated, not only will they be less likely to contract the flu, but the risk they pose in transmitting the flu to patients dramatically decreases as well.”
Infection control nurses face several challenges when it comes to educating their colleagues. “Despite our best efforts, many nurses won’t get vaccinated as we recommend. Some nurses believe that they are healthy and therefore don’t need the vaccine. Others who may have been vaccinated before and later contracted the flu may not believe it will help. Our job is to educate them and correct these misconceptions,” said Russell. “Getting vaccinated is a professional responsibility to help protect others. Luckily the numbers improve from year to year as we continue to stress this, but it takes a lot of work.”
The flu vaccine, like any other, is not 100 percent effective, so infection control nurses must also develop procedures for those who may already be infected. “If any staff member comes into work with flu-like symptoms, we immediately equip them with a mask and send them to the employee health office or emergency room,” said Russell. “Once segregated, they undergo a rapid flu test. If the test comes back positive – and in some cases even if it comes back negative and symptoms are severe – we send them home with instructions on fighting the flu, as well as preventing its transmission.”
To prevent contracting and spreading the flu, the CDC outlines several simple steps nurses can share with their patients and colleagues:
- Get vaccinated. The CDC estimates that this season’s vaccine reduces a person’s risk of needing medical attention by about 60 percent. Young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions and people aged 65 years and older are at high risk of serious flu complications and should make vaccination an even higher priority.
- Avoid close contact with others. If you are already experiencing flu-like symptoms, limit or avoid contact with others as much as possible to keep the disease from spreading.
- Wash your hands often. Whether it’s a handshake or a hug, many people use their hands to greet people on a daily basis. Proper hand-washing with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub can help keep you flu-free if you come into contact with an infected person. Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to prevent germs from spreading.
- Visit a doctor or other health professional. If you become infected, your doctor or nurse practitioner can prescribe powerful antiviral drugs that can shorten your sickness, make it less harsh and help keep you out of the hospital.
“At the end of the day, there is no guaranteed way to prevent the flu. The best way to prevent transmitting the flu is for infected people to stay isolated as much as possible,” said Russell. “Meanwhile, healthy nurses need to be extra vigilant with hand-washing and follow proper protocol in order to minimize the likelihood that they become infected or transmit the disease to anyone else.”
For more information on flu prevention strategies and infection control in health facilities, visit www.cdc.gov.