Minnesota nursing homes take extra safety precautions as flu hits long-term care facilities

Nursing homes in Minnesota are taking extra safety precautions as flu outbreaks hit long-term care facilities.

According to data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health, long-term care facilities saw 12 new influenza outbreaks over the last week, for a total of 26 outbreaks so far this season.

RELATED: Flu activity still at high level across Minnesota

This marks the earliest surge in flu outbreaks at long-term care facilities in years. They typically see influenza-related issues during the months of January through March.

“Our infection preventionist every single week watches those numbers and we have conversations about that,” said Melissa Schneider, the chief operating officer at Episcopal Homes of Minnesota in St. Paul. “How do we need to respond to this? What is going on out there? Do we need to pivot anything that we’re doing?”

Episcopal Homes serves 500 residents at its facility, which includes nursing homes and independent living.

“With the vulnerable population we have, we just want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make their home as safe as possible,” Schneider said. “A lot of the strategies we already had in place to keep our residents safe from COVID, we are now doing with the flu.”

The nursing home will continue to require masks in common areas, even though the state no longer has a mask mandate for nursing homes.

“Keeping masking in place during this tough flu season seemed like the right decision for us,” Schneider said.

Episcopal Homes is screening all visitors at the door for symptoms of or exposure to any respiratory illness.

They have also hosted multiple flu shot clinics on site in recent weeks to make vaccination easier for residents.

“For residents, we’ve got a 99% flu shot rate here,” Schneider said.

By contrast, only 33% of people statewide have received a flu shot, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

MDH told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that it will be sending out two-in-one test kits to Minnesota nursing homes so they can test residents for influenza and COVID-19 at the same time.

Each nursing home will receive 25 to 50 tests within the next few weeks.

An MDH spokesperson said it is a one-time distribution of these combination flu and COVID tests, funded by temporary COVID-19 long-term care support funds.

“We all do basic infection control but this is kind of heightened infection control,” said Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, an organization representing 1,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities statewide.

Cullen urges families to play it safe around seniors this holiday season, since they are most at risk of being hospitalized with the flu.

“The exposures that could happen during the holiday season is our big worry. We do know there’s very little room in hospitals so we’re trying to avoid any outbreaks in our settings,” Cullen said. “Wear a mask, especially if you feel like you’ve got the sniffles. That’s how the flu gets into our settings. Make assumptions that what you have is contagious.”

Schneider added, “Just delay your visit, even if it’s the holidays, even if it’s hard to do so. It could truly be saving that resident’s life to not come in and visit when you’re sick.”

Despite the recent surge in flu cases across Minnesota, Cullen doesn’t anticipate statewide restrictions on visitors at long-term care facilities.

“We learned a couple of things from our COVID experience, that placing holds on visitors is really detrimental to the quality of life for our seniors,” Cullen said.

Episcopal Homes said hosting its own holiday events is another safety measure they’ve instituted, so residents can shop and celebrate the season in a controlled environment.

“It keeps them from going out in the public where restrictions are much more lax, so instead bringing everything to them has always been a good strategy for us,” Schneider said.