Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, AJN editor-in-chief
The news has been full of reports about the influenza outbreak, deaths from complications, and shortages of vaccine and antivirals. Is the flu season as bad as purported, or are we experiencing media hype? Nurses are frequently asked for information by family, friends, and neighbors (and strangers—I was in a restaurant once and a diner at a nearby table, having overheard my conversation with a colleague, leaned over and asked if he could ask me a health question!), so here’s the latest information.
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report for the week ending January 5, epidemiologists from all states except three reported (see map) widespread “influenza-like illness” (ILI, meaning fever and cough or sore throat). California and Mississippi reported regional activity and Hawaii reported sporadic activity. The District of Columbia reported local spread. And while officials in some cities and states declared public health emergencies, the CDC notes that “influenza activity remained elevated in the U.S., but may be decreasing in some areas.”
One of the indicators is the proportion of people seeking treatment for ILI. Thus far, that number has risen as high as 6.0%, but has since fallen to 4.3%, as of January 5. In prior years deemed as moderately severe flu seasons, that indicator rose as high as 7.6%.
So in terms of history, we’re having a moderately severe flu season, but not the worst one we’ve had—at least not yet, as we’re still just in the middle of our season. Flu season typically begins in October, peaks in January or February, and usually ends in April, though timing can vary.
Some hospitals are getting tough on employees who refuse to receive the flu vaccine or take other actions to protect patients. ABC News reports that an Indiana hospital fired eight employees—including three nurses—who failed to get vaccinated against the flu; and USA Today ran the story of a Missouri nurse who was fired after she refused the flu vaccine and also refused to wear a surgical mask.
Many feel that those who work in clinical areas should be required to get vaccinated so they won’t transmit influenza to patients, but each year the issue of mandated flu vaccines for health care workers is again debated. In 2010, following the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, AJN explored this issue, presenting a “point–counterpoint” as well as a commentary from an ethicist. (These three AJN articles will be free until February 15.)
Me? I think health care workers—and not just nurses, but all who come in contact with patients and people who have compromised immune systems—are ethically bound to act in the best interests of their patients. That means either getting the flu vaccine, or wearing a mask to reduce the chance of transmission. And we should consider masks for hospital visitors, too.
So how do you stand?