Coronavirus may have turned the educational world on its head, but schools now also have a more familiar health issue to monitor: the flu. Flu season is upon us, and not only does it bring its usual risks of serious sickness and derailing work productivity, but this year, it’s an even bigger threat thanks to the pandemic.
It’s possible to get infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, meaning that your organization may face two highly contagious viruses at once this year. That’s why it’s more important than ever to develop plans and procedures to mitigate the spread of the flu during COVID-19.
Seasonal illness, serious risk
Even without the pandemic, the seasonal flu can pose significant risks to your organization. Excessive employee absences due to infection can put a serious strain on your daily operations. In 2019, four North Texas school districts had to shut down in a single week due to flu outbreaks that kept vital staff and students from coming to campus. This was just one example out of countless school closures across the country that year due to a severe flu season. COVID-19 is already difficult enough to navigate; keeping the flu under control can make your job easier and avoid tough situations like being short on staff or having to close school.
Watch out for symptoms
You’re probably more than familiar with seasonal flu symptoms. Coughing and sniffling students are often a telltale sign that fall has arrived. Unfortunately, the pandemic is making it more difficult to detect the flu. Both viruses cause similar symptoms, including:
- Runny nose
- Sinus congestion
- Body aches
This can put your organization in a tough spot. If you see an employee suffering from any of these conditions, you may have to quarantine them under the risk that their symptoms are a result of a positive COVID-19 infection.
Quarantining unwell employees is a safe practice, but it could spell bad news for staying productive and continuing your work operations. Throughout flu season, which typically starts in late October and lasts through January or February, you can mitigate your risk of influenza outbreaks by making plans, encouraging vaccinations, slowing the spread through safe practices, and staying informed.
Developing plans is a surefire way to be ready once the flu arrives by outlining effective response procedures. Your campus or district emergency operations plan should be equipped with a public health and medical annex that outlines how your organization should address a public health and medical incident.
The most effective plans are dynamic, designed to keep your community healthy during a variety of situations. They should discuss your organization’s processes for individual and school-wide infection control measures, promote relevant vaccinations, and detail your disease containment strategies. For the best results, you should develop your plans with the guidance of local public health officials, who can offer expertise to develop infection control measures that work for your organization.
There may be plenty of similarities between COVID-19 and the flu, but here’s one critical difference: there’s a proven step you can take to prevent flu altogether. Yearly flu vaccinations can drastically reduce your chances of contracting influenza or avoid serious complications if you do get infected. Vaccinations prevent millions of illnesses and tens of thousands of hospitalizations every year, making regular immunizations an important tool to keep your organization safe this year can minimize hospital visits during the pandemic.
Encourage your staff and students to get vaccinated, and if possible, make it easy for them to do so. Provide them with online sign-up forms or point them to local clinics or doctor’s offices where they can get quickly get their shots.
Stay clean and stop the spread
Many of the same techniques that mitigate COVID-19 can also work for the flu. Social distance and wearing face masks may be synonymous with the pandemic, but they can also be powerful tools to prevent other health conditions like the seasonal flu. Schools should comply with Governor Abbott’s mask mandate on campus to ensure that all staff and students are properly protected where applicable. Likewise, it’s critical now more than ever to encourage your community to stay home whenever they feel sick or experience flu-like symptoms.
Don’t let up on your campus sanitization, either. Cleaning high-touch surfaces throughout your school, such as desks and doorknobs, can go a long way towards reducing your organization’s risk of spreading the flu. Hand sanitizers are especially effective at fighting the flu as well as COVID-19: a recent study found that alcohol-based sanitizers recommended by the World Health Organization could kill coronavirus and flu on human skin within 30 seconds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides additional guidance on how social distance, cleaning, and disinfecting can help slow the spread of the flu on its website.
Stay informed and proactively report
It’s always critical to communicate with your local and health authorities to stay informed about the flu situation in your area. You are required to report cases of the flu, COVID-19, and other communicable diseases to your local health department, which then reports to the Department of State Health Services to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and the flu across the state. TEA’s website offers more information about tracking and reporting requirements.
Follow your local flu statistics and share them with your community, so your whole area is informed and prepared for current public health trends. Don’t forget to take advantage of state and federal resources: DHS and CDC websites contain advice and resources for flu prevention during COVID-19.
Help from the Fund during flu season, COVID-19, and beyond
Protecting public health is always a major priority for schools, and this year, the pandemic has posed additional unique challenges for mitigating the spread of serious illnesses. At the TASB Risk Management Fund, we’re committed to helping members prepare for infectious diseases like COVID-19, the flu, and others.
We can provide resources and expertise that help your district stay safe for the long run. Contact your Risk Solutions Consultant to learn more about protecting your school, and for help preparing your organization for public health issues or to request a customizable public health and medical annex template, reach out to Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss at 512.505.2868.