Nursing homes protecting residents against deadly H3N2 flu

(WHAM photo)

Rochester, N.Y. - It's the height of a vicious flu season, one that has already claimed three lives in Monroe County.

"What actually kills them is organ failure,” said U. of R. Professor David Topham of Immunology & Microbiology. “They go into a sort of inflammatory shock, their whole system.”

Topham says this year’s flu strain is hitting people so hard because there’s not much protection from the current flu shot. One of the reasons, he said, is because the virus mutated while the vaccine was being developed, making it less effective against the deadly strain now circulating.

“The people who develop the severe disease, some may have co-infections, bacterial co-infections or viral co-infections," he said. "But it’s really not that clear - again, even controlling those things - why some people progress and some don’t.”

The very young and elderly can have secondary conditions or other viruses that makes their illness worse.

Topham said a universal vaccine is in the works. It focuses on the part of the flu virus that doesn't change as much.

“That gives us hope that if we can target those parts of the virus, then we could have a vaccine that would last, maybe, five years and protect against all influenzas,” he said.

The hope is to create an immunity to that region, so they wouldn't have to update the vaccine so often.

This year's flu outbreak claimed three lives in Monroe County, all over the age of 50. That's why nursing homes are taking added precautions.

“We communicate every day with our infections control nurse,” said Jennifer Disalvo, the assistant director of nursing at St. John’s Home. “Who’s sick in the building? How many have cold and flu-like symptoms? We’ll start swabbing that unit for the flu based on those symptoms.”

Milton Bull remembers catching bad case of the flu.

“I just decided, never again am I going to go through that,” he said. “So, I just made sure, every year, that I got a flu shot. If I had to go to a different county, I made sure I did."

The nursing home has now had six confirmed cases of the flu out of its 380 residents. Those who fell ill were quarantined.

"Staff goes in there wearing masks, so they don't bring germs out to another resident when they go in to care for another resident,” Disalvo said.

Bull stays clear of those who are sick.

"I more or less stay in my room, where nobody can cough or sneeze on me," he said.

As soon as the staff learns of these cases from its doctors, they alert families and impose visitor restrictions. The latest one was lifted on Monday.

"We can bring the phone to their loved one, and they can talk to them over the phone,” Disalvo said. “Or, in today's technology, we can Skype or Facetime so they can talk to them without feeling, 'I’m going to get sick if I got to visit my loved one.'"

"My dad wanted to come and visit,” Bull said. “I don't know if you want to come in or not. He said, 'No, I don't think so.' Which I wanted, because I didn't want him getting it."

Cleaning is also a big deal when it comes to preventing the spread of the flu.

“So those surfaces that everybody is going to touch,” Disalvo said. “Your hand railing, elevator keys. They come up and make sure that they’re cleaning them, wiping them down to prevent the spread of the infection as well.”

But the biggest way they're keeping residents safe is: “Keep your hands away from your face when you're out in public, because that's where you're going to pick it up,” Disalvo said. “You're going to wipe your hand on your grocery cart and put it on your mouth, and guess what? You just contaminated yourself, and given yourself the flu."

Again, washing your hands for at least 20 seconds is helpful. All residents and staff are required to get flu shots. If an employee is unable to get one for health or religious reasons, they must wear a mask.

St. John's tells 13WHAM it is in constant communication with its infections control nurse on who's sick in the building or who has a cold and flu-like symptoms. That's when they start swabbing and start preventative treatment.

“They do a good job,” Bull said.

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