This year’s severe flu season is killing or hospitalizing far more elderly care home residents than usual, prompting Fraser Health to declare 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 practise stringent hand hygiene while there, chief medical health officer Dr. Paul van Buynder ordered Tuesday.
The infection-prevention directive issued under the Public Health Act applies to all staff, volunteers and visitors.
“We’re in the midst of an outbreak, there’s a public health risk and these are frail elderly that need to be protected,” van Buynder said.
There have been flu outbreaks at more than 20 long-term residential care homes in Fraser Health so far this year – more than twice as many as in each of the previous two years.
“The rate of people who are dying is much higher than in previous years,” van Buynder said, adding flu fatalities so far are triple the number at care homes for the last three years combined. “Well over 500 people have been ill.”
There have been more than four times the number of flu-related hospitalizations from long-term care facilities than in a typical flu season, he said.
“It doesn’t seem to be as severe in the other health authorities at this stage. It’s a response that’s happening in Fraser because we’ve got much more activity than the others.”
Although long-term care residents are generally vaccinated against flu, van Buynder said they’re still greatly at risk because of their weak immune systems.
People who refuse to comply with the order to wear masks and wash with alcohol hand sanitizer will be turned away.
“I believe people will do the right thing,” van Buynder said.
Health-sector unions last year resisted the provincial government’s infection control policy that required workers to wear masks throughout the flu season if they refused the flu shot.
Enforcement of that initiative was put on hold for a year but Fraser Health officials say the region’s order now takes precedence.
Unvaccinated care home employees who refuse to wear a mask are to be sent home without pay.
Anti-viral medication is also being given to all residents in care homes with outbreaks to try to prevent serious illness.
The risks of flu aren’t limited to the elderly. Van Buynder noted those with chronic disease, pregnant women and the very young are also vulnerable – an 18-month-old baby died recently in Ontario.
Flu-related visits to hospital emergency departments are also at the highest level the region has seen in years.
The health authority is also urging anyone planning to visit care homes not to go if they feel unwell.
Although Fraser Health’s flu vaccination rate improved this year, van Buynder and other public health officials continue to face opposition to their immunization programs.
Some online commenters denounced Tuesday’s announcement as a scare tactic to benefit pharmaceutical firms.
Van Buynder said there are strong anti-vaccination lobbies in pockets of the Fraser region and he’s not surprised those people continue to “ignore the serious consequences of influenza and won’t help protect” vulnerable groups.
“I’m disappointed for the families of the vulnerable who are being hospitalized and who are passing away from vaccine-preventable disease and diseases we can intervene on because they want to push those messages.”
More than 75 per cent of full-time health care workers in Fraser are vaccinated.