Health officials in the Flathead Valley are reporting that in January, five long-term care and assisted living facilities experienced an outbreak of influenza or norovirus. The Flathead City-County Health Department worked with all five facilities following the outbreaks, and says none broke any health regulations.
Joining us now is Katheryn Houghton, the local newspaper reporter who broke the story.
Nicky Ouellet: I’m here with Katheryn Houghton, the healthcare reporter for the Daily InterLake. Katheryn, thanks for chatting with us.
Katheryn Houghton: Thanks for having me.
NO: Last week, you attended a regular meeting of the Flathead City-County Board of Health. What did health officials learn at that meeting?
KH: Health officials actually released a January report showing there were 5 different outbreaks at assisted living or long-term care facilities. And three of those outbreaks were with the flu, and two were with norovirus.
NO: How many people got sick?
KH: More than 100 people were sick, 104, and three people died from the flu, and all three were at one facility.
NO: Do we know which facilities had outbreaks?
KH: At this point we don’t know which facilities had outbreaks. Health officials have said by pinpointing what facility had the outbreak and how many people were sick, they could be breaking patient confidentiality. They have said that they will release the names of the facilities, but at that time did not have them on hand.
NO: What are some of the factors that led to an outbreak of this size?
KH: So, health officials are quick to point out that outbreaks can happen anywhere, even if you do everything right. For example, one facility did have a flu vaccination requirement for employees, which is something that health officials have said they wanted. So, something like this, the report outlined the policies that each facility had, and some facilities did not include influenza policies, meaning there wasn’t really a plan in place as far as health officials could see. Some facilities responded very quickly, others didn’t isolate patients in time, according to the report. Or healthcare workers worked with both ill patients and with healthy ones. There were also some facilities that weren’t cleaning with bleach, which is suggested by the health department. So that was some of the things health officials pointed to.
NO: Why are we just finding out about these outbreaks?
KH: This is something that’s a new report for the health department to deliver to the board of health. This is something the board recently asked for, so they’re going back to see if there’s a pattern in outbreaks, or if there’s a pattern in facilities having issues with outbreaks.
NO: Are there reporting requirements for outbreaks of influenza or norovirus?
KH: Facilities have to follow infection control policies. However, at this point one of the health officials with the department said that those regulations don’t currently include influenza. Facilities are required to report a cluster or outbreak, but that exact number isn’t set. So health officials have said they hope health facilities are reporting influenza or norovirus by the second or third resident who’s sick.
NO: What is the Flathead City-County Board of Health, or facilities on their own, doing to prevent something like this from happening again?
KH: Again, health officials stress outbreaks can occur, it’s how facilities respond. When they go into a facility that has experienced an outbreak, they’re making sure that employees are washing their hands, they’re interacting with patients well, they’re not jumping between healthy patients and sick patients. They’re using bleach, things of that sort. So it really is a focus on education. Board members cannot require that facilities mandate vaccinations for their employees. Health officials have said that they will continue to crusade, that they will continue to educate facilities that while vaccinations are not 100 percent, their residents are safer when they’re employees are vaccinated.
Health officials also really stress that these facilities, for the most part, do whatever they can to protect their residents. Another major concern is whether or not a family member is going to stay home when they’re sick, instead of going to visit their grandma or grandpa. These are some of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to getting sick and having complications if they develop the flu or norovirus. Also norovirus can’t be vaccinated against, so that solely has to do with having a sanitary environment and how soon you stop that spread.
NO: Katheryn, thanks so much for joining us.
KH: Thanks for having me.