It’s the first week of January and winter seems to have finally arrived with a vengeance. In addition to the cold and snow, many older adults are also fighting this year’s flu.
The CDC reports the virus is widespread in 43 states — from New England to the Pacific Northwest. The flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications with older adults and those with respiratory problems at especially high risk.
Some 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year. More than 200,000 are hospitalized from its complications.
By the first day of 2015, CDC’s influenza surveillance systems were showing “elevated” activity, including increasing hospitalizations rates in people 65 years and older. CBS Atlanta reported that “flu-related hospitalizations for the elderly have doubled from this time last year” across the country. Media outlets report increased flu-related deaths among local elderly in recent days.
Typically 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths and between 50 percent and 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations in the United States occur in people 65 years and older. Weakened immune systems, multiple chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or chronic pulmonary disease, make older adults more vulnerable to flu-related complications. Elderly also frequently live in communal style housing – such as nursing homes, assisted living or VA facilities. A mini-epidemic can spread quickly, as KJCT recently reported.
A new, higher-dose vaccine called Fluzone is available for people age 65 and older. According to the CDC, it gives older people “a better immune response, and therefore, better protection against flu.” Results from a multicenter randomized double blind trial among adults age 65 and older found the new vaccine to be “significantly” (24.2 percent) more effective and produced greater antibody response than the standard vaccine. Note that Sanofi Pasteur funded this study.
- State, county or city health department websites like this one can point journalists to communities with major outbreaks.
- Health departments also post regulations for health workers in contact with at-risk patients and populations.
- Check with local hospital emergency departments about both ED visits and admissions. Are they higher than last year?
- Also check with walk-in clinics in your community. Are older people (or other high-risk individuals) kept apart in waiting areas?
- Talk to staff at a local nursing home or assisted-living facility.
- Are they prepared for a potential outbreak?
- Are there special rooms or floors available for those who come down with the flu?
- What training has the staff had?
- Are protocols being followed?
- How does this flu season compare with previous ones?
- Speak directly with residents or family members. What have they observed or experienced? Does it correlate with what you’ve been told by administrators?
- Talk to pharmacists at large retail outlets — most offer flu shots on a walk-in basis.
- How has “business” been? Are seniors filling prescriptions for flu-related medications? Compare that with prior prescribing patterns by cross checking the Dartmouth Atlas Database.
- As a reminder, Medicare Part B pays for flu vaccines with no copay; ask around and see if anyone has been charged for their flu shot.