By Jeff Nagel and Kevin Mills
High levels of flu activity in Fraser Health have prompted the region’s chief medical health officer to declare it a health hazard, and invoke special powers to protect the vulnerable.
Anyone going to a residential care or assisted living facility who hasn’t had the flu shot this year must now wear a mask and practice stringent hand hygiene while there, Dr. Paul van Buynder ordered Tuesday.
The directive applies to all staff, volunteers and visitors.
“We are asking our patients, visitors and staff to take these extra steps to protect their family members, patients, residents and loved ones from this highly contagious and serious virus,” Van Buynder said.
There have been 20 flu outbreaks at long-term residential care homes in Fraser Health so far this year – that’s more than twice as many as reported in each of the previous two years.
Of those, two were in Abbotsford at the Menno Hospital and Cottage Worthington Pavilion.
According to Fraser Health spokesman Roy Thorpe-Dorward, the Menno outbreak is still active (declared on Jan. 2) while the Cottage Worthington Pavilion outbreak was declared over on Jan. 12.
There are nine residential long-term care facilities and four assisted living facilities in Abbotsford which are owned or funded by Fraser Health.
Private facilities have also been ordered to use these precautionary methods.
“The order just went out today (Tuesday) so there are certainly facilities that haven’t received it yet. However, it’s an order under the Public Health Act,” said Thorpe-Dorward, adding every facility must comply.
Asked whether the public should be concerned, especially those with elderly relatives in a long-term care facility, Thorpe-Dorward said the health hazard designation is designed to “protect the most vulnerable residents we have.”
He said bad flu seasons occur every so often and these measures are put in place to “reduce the spread.”
Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin, a Medical Health Officer and Medical Director for Infection Control in Fraser Health, said the health hazard designation applies to long-term care facilities and not hospitals because the “worst burden of illness” is from those facilities.
There have been more than four times the number of flu-related hospitalizations from long-term care facilities than in a typical flu season.
And there have also been three times the number of deaths linked to flu among care home residents than in the last three years combined.
She said the order will be enforced facility by facility.
A proper hand washing station and a supply of masks will be set up by the entrance to the buildings.
“If my parents were living in a long-term care facility I would be really pleased that Fraser Health is taking these steps to better protect these residents.”
She said it’s not too late for people to get flu shot. Most residents – about 90 per cent – have already had a flu shot, but the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions “don’t usually mount as good a response” to the vaccine.
“Even if they are vaccinated, they have a higher risk of getting the flu anyway. That’s why it’s really important to immunize everybody around them.”
Flu-related visits to hospital emergency departments are also at the highest level the region has seen in years, although Thorpe-Dorward said there were no statistics available at this time regarding flu-related visits to the Abbotsford hospital.
The health authority is urging anyone planning to visit care homes not to go if they feel unwell.