Hands On Infection Control – The Flu

By Greg Schaffer

Flu is a common cause of respiratory distress and illness requiring fire and EMS response and transport. During the influenza season, outbreaks of health-care-associated influenza affect both patients and fire service personnel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between November and March it’s estimated that five to 20 percent of Americans will become sick with the flu, most suffering only mild symptoms for a few days. However, an average of 200,000 people are hospitalized, and 36,000 Americans die annually from flu complications.

The reduced supply of flu vaccination has received a lot of public attention. But, with or without the vaccination, there are some basic things you need to know about the flu and how to reduce your chances of becoming sick.

The Flu
Influenza is a contagious illness that strikes millions of Americans each year, with pneumonia as the most common complication in high-risk groups. Influenza, unlike the common cold, has a swift onset of severe symptoms beginning with two to seven days of fever, headache, muscle aches, extreme fatigue, runny nose, sore throat, and a cough that is often severe.

Influenza transmission occurs predominantly by large respiratory droplets expelled from the respiratory tract during coughing or sneezing. Transmission also occurs through touching something with respiratory secretions or virus on it, followed by touching your nose or mouth. You may be able to infect others beginning one day before getting symptoms yourself, and up to seven days after getting sick. This means you can infect someone else, while being unaware that you have the virus.

Influenza Infection Control Considerations

  • Offer a mask to patients who are coughing.
  • Wear a mask yourself.
  • Wear gloves on all patient contacts.
  • Wear a uniform cover if possible.
  • Remove gloves and decontaminate hands before and after touching the patient, their environment, or their respiratory secretions.
  • When hands are visibly contaminated with respiratory secretions, wash hands with soap and water.
  • If hands are not visibly soiled, use an alcohol-based hand rub for routinely decontaminating hands immediately following patient contact.

Employee Restrictions
Exclude fire personnel with symptoms of respiratory infection from work for the duration of their illness.

Basic Station Cleaning
Good housekeeping, including routinely cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched items, as well as properly washing dishes, will help to reduce the spread of viruses in the firehouse.

Employee Vaccination
According to national recommendations by the CDC, healthcare workers are in a high-risk category and should receive influenza immunization. If your department responds to requests for medical assistance whether for first response or for transport, you are providing healthcare and should be vaccinated. Priority should be given to vaccinating those in the department that provide hands on care, before vaccination is offered to other members of the department.

Following these basic infection control practices is the best way to assure good health this winter for you, your family, and your coworkers.

Greg Schaffer is a lieutenant and EMS officer with Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services. He has provided training programs for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, and is a nationally recognized fire and EMS instructor, writer, and conference speaker.

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