As Flu Season Intensifies State Public Health Leaders Offer Advice

January 18, 2018|4:12 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

On Jan. 17, ASTHO hosted a media call with the press, as well as state public health leaders from California, Colorado, and Rhode Island, to discuss this year’s deadly flu season and what individuals can do to protect themselves and their families. Influenza is now widespread throughout the country, with pediatric deaths and flu-associated hospitalizations reported at much higher rates than the previous two flu seasons. According to CDC’s Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report for the week ending on Jan. 6, a total of 6,486 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations and 20 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported.

During the media call, the assembled public health leaders shared firsthand the effects that influenza is having on their states, as well as their agencies’ role in preventing its spread. The activities and recommendations discussed are often reinforced by law. A review of this year’s proposed state legislation shows that policymakers in other states are looking to adopt similar responses.

Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, ASTHO president-elect and director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, discussed the widespread reach of the flu in Rhode Island, prompting the requirement that unvaccinated healthcare workers wear masks, thereby reducing the risk of spreading influenza to patients. A set of companion bills introduced in New Jersey this year (A 1576 and S 1003) would allow healthcare facilities to take similar measures to protect patients when a healthcare worker declines the flu vaccine. These measures may include relocating or changing the assignment of the healthcare worker.

In addition, Karen Smith, MD, director and state public health officer at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), reported that 141 flu outbreaks have occurred at California healthcare facilities. In response, CDPH sent letters to long-term care facilities throughout the state instructing them about how to prevent flu outbreaks. Informing the public about influenza’s risk to those most susceptible to the disease (i.e., the young and elderly) can also help to reduce and prevent its spread. A bill in the Indiana legislature (HB 1058) would require operators of certain assisted-living facilities to annually provide residents with information about influenza’s causes and symptoms, the most recent CDC recommendations, as well as the availability, effectiveness, and contraindications of the flu vaccine. In addition, the Mississippi legislature is considering a pair of bills (HB 60 and SB 45) to require similar information be provided to the parents or guardians of children enrolled in day care.

Larry Wolk, MD, executive director and chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, spoke about the importance of getting a yearly flu shot and how it is not too late to get one for the ongoing season. Wolk also reiterated that antivirals such as Tamiflu are not to be viewed as substitutes for the flu vaccine. Ensuring the availability of the flu vaccine by making it readily accessible is key to its effectiveness. One way to expand its accessibility is to increase the types of providers who can administer it. Last year, several states, including Hawaii (SB 514), Indiana (SB 51), Kansas (HB 2030), Kentucky (SB 101), Wisconsin (SB 172), and West Virginia (HB 2518) made it easier for people to receive flu vaccinations from pharmacists by reducing the age of the person who a properly trained pharmacist can administer the vaccine to.

Toward the end of the media call, it was noted that this year’s flu season has yet to reach its peak. Several weeks of disease surveillance, reporting, and response remain. In the meantime, state public health agencies will continue to inform, coordinate, and support their communities, healthcare providers, and local partners.