Flu outbreaks hit Calgary seniors homes hard

Alberta has seen the highest number of flu outbreaks of any province across Canada this season.

Out of 486 outbreaks across Canada, 108 are in Alberta

Krista Tweed, senior manager with Silvera for Seniors, says the supportive-living homes are bringing in strict infection control measures to deal with a number of influenza outbreaks. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Alberta has seen the highest number of flu outbreaks of any province across Canada this season.

Between Aug. 27, 2017 and Jan. 6, 2018, there were 486 outbreaks across the country, 108 of which were in Alberta, according to data from Canada's public health agency.

Jenny Robinson, the chief operating officer of the Brenda Strafford Foundation, says that while the word outbreak might sound scarier than it actually is, it can still pose serious risks for long-term care facilities and hospitals. 

What is an outbreak?

An outbreak is determined by the number of cases of influenza in a closed community — the number differs based on whether the outbreak happens in a school, hospital or long-term care facility, or workplace.

For care facilities, the number of cases that makes an outbreak ranges from as few as two in a facility to more than 30, and can last weeks.

Robinson said her organization, which serves more than 1,000 seniors in Calgary, has seen six outbreaks so far this season in three of their four long- and short-term care facilities.

Eight seniors were so ill they were hospitalized, and two died in hospital.

"The reality is we care for residents who have chronic diseases and ongoing health concerns, which can compromise their immune systems, and as such influenza can heighten their risk of death," Robinson said.

Silvera for Seniors, another Calgary seniors' residence, has also seen six outbreaks so far — up from two across the entire season last year. 

When an outbreak happens, care homes have to step up their policies, which means cleaning and sanitizing as much as possible (even items like house keys and walkers), bringing in additional staff to cover those who get sick, isolating ill residents and restricting visitors.

Silvera for Seniors has seen more influenza outbreaks this year than during past seasons. (Mark Matulis/CBC)

"That does take a toll on residents because the residents that are ill are isolated in their suite, and the residents that are well, there are changes to their normal day-to-day," said Krista Tweed, senior manager at Silvera for Seniors and chair of the outbreak committee.

This year's flu season has been an especially severe one for the province.

Out of 15,572 lab-confirmed cases of the flu so far this season, 5,845 were in Alberta. 

Herd immunity

Only 28 per cent of Albertans got the flu shot last year, and so far this year, only 55 per cent of Alberta Health Services employees have been immunized.

Herd immunity — a type of indirect protection for individuals who can't be vaccinated that occurs when enough of the surrounding population is immune as to prevent the spread of a virus — is especially important for seniors, who are vulnerable to the illness.

Tweed said some of the buildings at Silvera had a higher vaccine uptake than others, something staff are always trying to improve.

"In our communication we're talking about it, why it's important, what it does, how it can reduce their risk either of the severity of or getting the flu," she said.

With files from Jennifer Lee