For healthcare systems across the U.S., flu season presents an annual challenge for staff members. The 2017-2018 flu season was no exception. In fact, the 2017-2018 flu season was the worst since the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
With a bad flu season comes high hospitalization rates. The hospitalization rate that year was the highest that the CDC had ever recorded at this point in a season. In fact, it exceeded the hospitalization rate of the deadly 2014-2015 season.3 During the 2014-2015 season, 710,000 Americans were hospitalized and 56,000 died.3 Last year, almost every state in the U.S. reported widespread flu activity. In southern California, Pennsylvania, and central Texas, some hospitals saw such excessive numbers of flu patients that they have resorted to measures like setting up triage tents or even turning patients away.
Healthcare facilities dealt with high hospitalization rates of patients and flu staffing shortages of nurses who had also fallen sick. In Little Rock, Arkansas, 35 percent of CHI St. Vincent Infirmary’s staff were out sick with the flu last season, according to the Clinical Director of Infirmary Emergency Services, Tabitha Childers. She said that particular flu affected more healthcare staff than ever before. She told KATV News, “We always say it’s a bad bug or virus when it starts taking the healthcare workers out.”
Nurses are known for their strengthened immune systems from exposure to so many germs in the hospital. In many cases, a nurse’s family member may be suffering from a respiratory infection — when the nurse catches it, all the nurse experiences is a sniffle here and there. That said, even a nurse’s immune system appeared to be no match for this past season’s flu strain.
Nurses with Flu Should Stay Home from Work
The flu shot was very weak in effectiveness last year. Experts estimated that the flu shot prevented the flu only 10 percent of the time last season. That resulted in large numbers of nurses calling off of work due to catching the flu themselves. It also resulted in large numbers of nurses going into work sick and causing bigger problems.
Health experts agree that nurses should avoid going to work while sick because it makes them less productive and poses a significant risk to patients. Nurses that work with patient populations that are already immunocompromised, such as transplant patients, oncology patients, and neonatal patients, are risking the lives of their patients when they come into work sick. A number of studies support that when nurses come to work sick, they do more harm than good. A 2012 study of a Colorado assisted living facility discovered that a nurse working at the facility was the source of a severe respiratory illness outbreak among residents.
According to a survey of almost 2,000 healthcare professionals, more than 40 percent who have worked while sick actually had the flu as they met with patients. “At least one earlier study has shown that patients who are exposed to a healthcare worker who is sick are five times more likely to get a healthcare-associated infection,” wrote Dr. Sophia Chiu, a researcher for the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “We recommend all healthcare facilities take steps to support and encourage their staff to not work while they are sick,” she stated. The CDC recommends that anyone with the flu wait 24 hours from the time their fever breaks until they return to work.
“Influenza and its complications disproportionately affect people who are 65 and older. They account for 80% of the deaths,” stated an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, Dr. William Schaffner. But the flu does not only kill people 65 and older. Young children and people who have underlying diseases can easily die from the flu, as well. The main complications of the flu that result in death are pneumonia, sepsis, and heart attacks. Keeping sick nurses home and away from hospitalized patients is best for the patients.
Keeping sick nurses home is also best for the hospitals but worsens the flu staffing shortage. Hospitals spend a lot of money on the care of patients who contract a healthcare-associated infection. Even though most hospitals have implemented quality improvement initiatives, an estimated $9.8 billion is spent every year treating hospital-acquired infections in patients, according to a study published in 2013. “Not paying for hospital-acquired infections or errors is an important part of the movement toward paying for quality, not quantity, of care,” states Mitchell H. Katz, MD, director, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services in California.
Many major organizations express the importance of quality patient care and the duty to do what is best for the patient. The American Nurses Association has a code of ethics that states “The nurse’s primary commitment is to the patient.” Nurses should not go to work sick because they are harming their patients, yet so many do. Many nurses state that they feel obligated to go to work because they don’t want their patients’ care to suffer because of a short-staffed unit. In reality, their patients suffer more because they are now exposed to the flu on top of whatever their admitting diagnosis was. Bottom line? Nurses should not go to work sick.
How Healthcare Facilities Can Fill Flu Staffing Shortages
With an increased patient load and many nurses forced to miss work due to infection, how can healthcare facilities cope with the current situation? Many healthcare systems have turned to travel nurses for support. Travel nurses—many of whom are contracted for 13-week assignments—bring valuable experience and require minimal on-boarding.
If your staff and facility has been hit hard by the flu this season, reach out an experienced travel nurse company to get the support you need.
Questions about Travel Nurses?
If your plagued by flu staffing shortages and have a need for short-term travel nurses at your healthcare facility, reach out to the team at Health Carousel Travel Network today by visiting hctn.healthcarousel.com.