Protect building occupants from a winter flu resurgence

Flu was almost non-existent last winter due to lockdowns and health measures, but experts warn it may return with a vengeance this winter.
Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The flu may have been almost non-existent last winter due to lockdowns and public health measures aimed at cutting down COVID-19 cases, but experts are warning that a resurgence is likely this winter.

Last year, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) only reported 79 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in its 2020-21 season, a fraction of the 54,000 cases logged the year before that.

But now, doctors across the country are reporting an increase in children and adults with colds and respiratory viruses.

“Without question, we are going to see influenza this year higher than we saw last year,” Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease expert, told CTV News. “Whether it’s going to be a sort of classic seasonal surge like we typically see or whether it’ll still be muted by the fact that we have a fair bit of public health measures still in many places in Canada, that’s the variable that we don’t know what impact that’s going to have.”

Primary concerns include the relaxing of certain health measures due to Canada’s high rate of COVID-19 vaccination and less-effective immune systems due to the vastly reduced exposure to influenza over the last 18 months.

Already, the World Health Organization is reporting that while COVID-19 infections dominated most of 2020 and 2021, there is now a clear rise in influenza cases worldwide.

“We’re very much hoping that some of the reduction in influenza we saw last year might have been because COVID was circulating at the same time,” Evans said. “But if that doesn’t happen this year, then we’re in for… what people like to call the ‘twindemic,’ which is two viruses causing a lot of cases, which can result in serious illness, and that would be very tough on the system to deal with.”

That twindemic was feared last winter but didn’t materialize. But, if flu cases were to rise at the same time as COVID-19, severely ill patients could be fighting for the same resources such as ICU beds and ventilators this winter.

What can facility managers do?

Encouraging building residents and employees to get the influenza vaccine – as well as, not instead of, the COVID-19 vaccine – is a paramount first step, suggest Evans and other experts.

Combination vaccines could even be the way of the not-too-distant future. Early clinical trials testing the combination of adenoviral vector or mRNA COVID-19 vaccines with an influenza vaccine found the combination vaccines are safe and ostensibly provide protection against both COVID-19 and influenza. The authors of the study suggested that a combination of booster COVID-19 doses and seasonal flu vaccines could soon become the norm in many parts of the world.

But what else can facility managers do to help mitigate the potential effects of a flu spike this winter?

GSF USA, a provider of cleaning services, offers several tips:

  • Develop a comprehensive cleaning plan and train staff – Outline a detailed cleaning plan that specifies cleaning tasks and frequencies. If a flu outbreak occurs, increase disinfecting. Most importantly, train staff to use cleaners, disinfectants, personal protective equipment, and tools correctly.
  • Focus on common touchpoints – The flu virus can survive on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours. During flu season, it’s important to clean and disinfect high touchpoints regularly to limit the spread of pathogens. These include door handles, light switches, sink handles, elevator buttons, and any other surfaces that are touched by many people frequently.
  • Increase daytime cleaning – Daytime cleaning has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic and is an effective strategy for combatting the flu as well. Cleaning during the day allows a facility to increase the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting. It also enables cleaning staff to stay on top of tasks while building occupants are present, rather than waiting until the end of the day.
  • Encourage handwashing and provide hand sanitizer in key areas – Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to kill germs — including influenza. Placing signage in all handwashing areas reminds building occupants and visitors how to effectively wash hands. In addition, placing accessible hand sanitizer at entrances and throughout the facility, such as near elevators, is another way to help reduce the spread of germs.
  • Require staff and visitors to stay home when sick – Coming to work or school sick is no longer acceptable. Ensure your facility’s sick policy is up-to-date and communicate it to everyone in the facility.

“While flu season is an inevitable annual occurrence, facility managers can limit the impact that illness has on their building visitors and cleaning staff,” said Kurt Kuempel, general manager, GSF Illinois and Wisconsin. “Being prepared is key to feeling confident that you can reduce the risk of infection and widespread outbreaks that can take a toll on productivity and the bottom line.”

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