One hundred years ago the most severe flu season swept the globe. The 1918 influenza pandemic devastated entire communities. It took an estimated 675,000 American lives and more than 50 million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Thankfully, prevention and treatment protocols have significantly advanced since then, but the flu is still a virus that needs to be taken seriously. Last year, according to Kate Fowlie, a CDC press officer, 900,000 people suffering with the flu were hospitalized and more than 80,000 people died from [it]. Those were only preliminary statistics. Official estimates were scheduled to be released after this issue went to press.
“These new estimates are record-breaking and emphasize the seriousness and severity of flu illness, as well as serve as a strong reminder of the importance of flu vaccination,” Fowlie says.
In addition to infecting more people than previous years, the flu persisted at epidemic levels longer than any other season on record. Typically, peak flu season lasts four to six weeks. “Last year, it held steady at epidemic levels for almost 10 weeks,” says Andrew Pekosz, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The first and most important thing anyone can do to protect themselves and others before flu season is to get a vaccine. The CDC and Pekosz emphasized the importance of encouraging employees and facility users to get vaccinated.
“There is a growing body of evidence that supports the fact that vaccination also reduces the risk of serious flu outcomes that can result in hospitalization and even death,” Fowlie adds.
A 2017 CDC study was the first of its kind to show that the flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated death by half among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions, and by nearly two-thirds among healthy children.
Flu vaccines aren’t mandatory and it’s impossible to know if visitors or staff members have had one. To help limit the spread of the flu virus at your park and recreation facilities, Fowlie and Pekosz offer the following four tips any park or recreation center can use this flu season:
1 - Install hand sanitizers near high-traffic areas.
At Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, hand sanitizers are close to places like an elevator button, door handles and other surfaces that are used often.
2 - Sanitize work spaces and common areas.
Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu, including places that you touch often.
“It’s a good habit to get into wiping down widely used surface areas every few hours,” Pekosz suggests. “If you spent an hour thinking about all the things you touched in a day, you would be amazed at all that you come in contact with,” he adds.
At the end of the day, it’s a good idea for staff to wipe down desk surfaces, keyboards, telephones, etc. This helps to remove accumulated bacteria.
3 - Signage.
There are a variety of resources available for signage about good hand-washing, sneeze and cough hygiene. Hang those reminders in places where people must pay attention. The messages can range from the importance of getting the flu vaccine to hand- washing and sneeze and cough etiquette.
“Put them right above a door handle or next to the elevator,” Pekosz explains. “Put them in a place that is within a person’s natural range of motion. That way, when they make a motion to do something, they will see it rather than looking past a sign on the wall.” When multiple people come together, the risk of infection increases. Fowlie suggests placing flu prevention messages in areas where people congregate, such as welcome centers and gathering areas. In addition, messages about washing hands should be posted in or near bathrooms.
“We tell people to wash their hands, but then they grab a door knob with their hand,” Pekosz continues. “Encourage visitors to use the paper towel to open the door or have hand sanitizers available for use immediately after opening the door.”
4 - Encourage sick employees and visitors to stay home.
The CDC recommends a sick person stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone, except to get medical care or for other necessities. The key is that the fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
“In our culture, no one will go home at the first sniffle, but if the person feels worn down, has aches and other symptoms associated with the flu, they should get rest and reduce the risk of spreading the flu,” Pekosz points out.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what this flu season will bring. It varies in severity, timing and length. One thing’s for sure, it will arrive at some point this fall and last into winter. The CDC offers a website with resources to support your efforts to limit the spread of the flu virus in your facility.