Managing nursing home illnesses and preventing deaths

Nursing home outbreaksCC: Matthew Bennet at Unsplash

This year, respiratory infections have resulted in tragedies at some of Fairfax’s nursing homes. Although many healthcare professionals are used to rising respiratory illnesses during the winter season, it’s unusual to experience a summertime peak. With reports of three residents dying at one nursing home, it’s clear some questions are yet to be answered.

Understanding more about how outbreaks happen is usually the key to preventing them. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to explore the causes of nursing home outbreaks and how healthcare professionals can prevent them.

What causes flu-like illness incidents in nursing homes?

The majority of nursing home infections are respiratory. This usually means they’re caused by bacteria and viruses such as influenza, mycobacterium tuberculosis, or streptococcus pyogenes. In some cases, bacteria such as MRSA begin to spread, making it extremely difficult to treat and control the infections in question.

Once an illness begins to spread, controlling it becomes challenging. Nursing home residents often live in close proximity to one another. Even the best staffing policies can’t prevent them from getting too close to each other as symptoms begin to show. As some bacteria and viruses can live outside of the body and on surfaces, even staying away from an infected person doesn’t tackle the problem entirely.

What can be done to prevent the spread of illnesses in nursing homes?

As with any aspect of medicine, prevention is better than cure. It’s down to nursing home management teams to admit their residents wisely. All residents should be screened for potential infectious diseases and their symptoms prior to being accepted. Similarly, they should look at whether the resident has come from a hospital where an infection is present. Finally, if a resident leaves the nursing home to enter hospital for a period of time, they should be screened for potential infections before returning.

Nursing home staff at all levels need to seize opportunities to practice hand hygiene routines. Ideally, they’ll wash their hands and use alcohol gel between different property areas. Additionally, they’ll repeat this process after touching residents and after using toilet facilities.

It’s also in no way controversial to suggest that staff should adhere to a strict vaccination schedule. Those who work in settings where they could compromise someone else’s already weak immune system have a responsibility to protect themselves too. When winter diseases such as flu pass onto a resident, they allow opportunistic infections to settle in while their immune system is working hard elsewhere.

Is it unusual to have so many outbreaks?

In many respects, it is. Although it isn’t unusual for outbreaks to occur during illness seasons such as winter, multiple deaths are. It’s even more unusual for this to happen outside of a peak illness season.

If you have a relative who resides in a nursing home, always exercise caution before visiting them. An illness that you could easily withstand may prove fatal to those who are older and more frail.

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About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.