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Flu Season 2020-21 and COVID: Is Your Hospital Ready?

2020-21 flu season - infection prevention

If there’s one thing we’ve learned for 2020, it’s to expect the unexpected. And this flu season is no different. Because so many unexpected things have occurred this year, it is difficult to make predictions regarding how the flu season will unfold. Since the pandemic is ongoing, what we can almost guarantee is that this flu season will be unlike any in recent memory.

What Might We Expect This Flu Season?

Despite extremely low flu cases being reported in the Southern Hemisphere, experts warn that the flu season in the United States could resemble a normal flu season. Why? Because many countries in the Southern Hemisphere (including Argentina, Australia, Chile and New Zealand) all had strict pandemic lockdown protocols that extended into the flu season.

In general, lockdowns in the U.S. have not been as strict. However, the public has been encouraged to socially distance and wear face masks, both of which have been shown to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 as well as the flu.

During the 2019-2020 flu season, a record 175 million doses of the flu vaccine were administered throughout the United States. The CDC announced that there will be extra flu vaccines available this year (closer to 198 million) in an attempt to reduce the number of people who become ill with the flu.

One major obstacle this year will be distinguishing between the flu and COVID-19, as the symptoms between the two viruses are so similar. In fact, the CDC acknowledges that because of the difficulty in differentiating on symptoms alone, additional testing may be required to confirm a diagnosis. That said, there is a good chance that both flu and COVID-19 test results will take longer to process than normal.

With the two viruses occurring simultaneously, and the possibility of contracting both at the same time, the CDC recommends that people, especially those at higher risk, stay home as much as possible and avoid contact with individuals who are not taking precautionary measures.

How Can Hospitals Prepare for Flu Season 2020-21?

With such uncertainty abound, how should hospitals go about preparing for the upcoming flu season? There are a few things hospitals can do right now to begin to plan for what a potential confluence of COVID and the flu may bring.

  1. Maintain ready access to vital equipment. Since March, health systems have been stocking up on medical equipment in preparation of increased patient census due to COVID-19. In addition to new purchases, many hospitals have elected to hold onto their rental equipment even if they haven’t experienced the expected influx of COVID-19 patients – opting to err on the side of caution to ensure they are fully prepared for a spike in cases.

Depending on hospital location and equipment mix, managing the level of inventory might be the right move for the months ahead to ensure emergency preparedness. But that can be costly if there isn’t attention paid to the utilization of those devices. The alternative is to work with your third-party rental providers to set up a rental and equipment mobilization logistics plan that would allow you to quickly scale up operations as needed – ensuring patient-ready rental devices get to where and when they are needed most.

If you haven’t already had conversations with your third-party providers about managing your medical equipment rentals for the flu season, right now is the time to start.

  1. Get ahead of any PMs/repairs. Even in a normal flu season, it’s good practice to prepare for higher patient census by ensuring your equipment has had all the necessary maintenance and repairs completed before more patients arrive. Healthcare technology management (HTM) teams routinely plan to do just that at the end of the summer.

But factor in the unique circumstances of this fall, and indeed this entire year: unpredictable patient volumes (and accompanying service demands), high-risk of staffing disruptions (sickness, PTO), increased financial constraints – and the fact that The Joint Commission (TJC) has begun conducting regular inspections again.

Those factors can place big demands on any HTM team. Now is the time to prioritize time-consuming repairs and maintenance on your medical and surgical equipment (beds, vents, infusion pumps, endoscopes, etc.) so that they are readily available when your caregivers need it. By doing this, your staff will be better prepared to support any unpredictable service events in the months ahead.

  1. Evaluate your equipment workflows. Although patient volumes remain down across the board, the acuity of patients coming into ERs is higher – meaning front-line caregivers need as much time as possible to effectively care for these patients. One of the simplest ways to do that is by ensuring the right equipment is easily available and patient-ready when and where it’s needed.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

One of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic is that our healthcare infrastructure is not set up to accomplish that simple goal. Some hospitals do not have a dedicated medical equipment management process in place, and few have logistics capabilities to quickly mobilize resources to different locations – for example, to hospitals designated for COVID-19 patients. That means while you might have enough equipment, it might not be readily available at the location it’s most needed.

Preparations should start now for managing an efficient flow of equipment throughout the hospital – or across multiple hospital locations – to keep up with increased equipment demands in the months ahead.

  1. Ensure your OR is Prepared. As we’ve discussed previously, the OR has been hit particularly hard during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elective procedures remain below average and it is expected that the trend will continue in the coming months. So, the pressure is on for ORs to take steps to run efficiently and maximize patient throughput. A good place to start is by evaluating how you access, use and service the surgical technology in your OR.

Given unpredictable, variable case volumes, having access to third-party surgical lasers and certified laser technicians can help you quickly meet case demands without overburdening your OR staff. On top of this, ORs can keep costs down throughout the flu season by partnering with an independent service organization (ISO) to provide maintenance and repairs on surgical equipment and instruments – such as endoscopes, cameras, anesthesia, tables, etc., By planning ahead, ORs can ensure they are able to run efficiently whether patient census is lower than normal or at peak volume.

Start getting ready for the flu season today by contacting Agiliti to discuss any of the following solutions:

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