Two female patients over the age of 85 who died following a viral outbreak at The Redwoods senior facility serve as a sad reminder for health care workers to receive their flu vaccinations, said Marin County Public Health Officer Matthew Willis.
"What it does is enforce the message that frail and elderly patients are particularly vulnerable to any illness," he said.
A wave of norovirus hit the residential care facility on Dec. 24, and sickened a total of 63 staff and residents. It was a possible contributing factor to the death of two patients, who also suffered from other serious medical conditions. Symptoms of the highly contagious virus include dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea.
Since the norovirus spreads quickly often through bodily contact it's unclear where the outbreak originated from, Willis said. There's also no vaccine or specific treatment, but that doesn't hold true for other viruses, particularly in the midst of influenza season.
“This is reminder to make sure we’re doing what we can to protect patients in ways we can control,” Willis said.
In other words, get your flu shot.
Willis, who became the county’s public health officer in mid-November, is supportive of but hasn't yet joined the ranks of health officials in San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Sonoma and other counties around California who mandated vaccination or masks for health workers in 2012.
Many hospitals, including Marin General and Novato Community, have also implemented vaccination mandates for their workers and boast a 95 percent vaccination rate.
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required California clinics and health facilities to achieve a 90 percent or higher flu vaccination rate by mid-2015, saying he was confident that local governments and health facilities could raise vaccination rates without a new state law.
Willis may consider the measure this year, but in the meantime is focusing his attention on improving vaccine rates among staff at skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes, which are at just 55 percent nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 90 percent of influenza deaths are among those 65 and older, he said.
“It’s a setting in which the population is more vulnerable and the staff is less vaccinated,” Willis said.
Vaccination rates among all health care workers in Marin are at nearly 65 percent, which is line with the national average, according to the most recent data available from the California Department of Public Health. But to learn more about how local nursing facilities measure up, in December the county sent letters to each of the 13 Marin centers – including The Redwoods in Mill Valley, the Rafael in San Rafael and the Tamalpais in Greenbrae – to seek data on clients taken to emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms from nursing facilities, and to determine vaccination rates among staff.
The surveys are due by the end of this week, Willis said, and the county will tally the results and prioritize where to focus outreach and support for vaccinations.
So far, Marin has been fortunate this flu season. Marin Health and Human Services reports about 6 percent of patients with flu-like symptoms tested positive for influenza the week of December 29, which is under the 10 percent threshold that indicates the virus is in season.
“We’re flirting with that line,” he said. Although flu season may be late this year, it's a matter of when, not if, an outbreak will occur.
“Which means,” Willis said, “there’s still time to get vaccinated.”