Leading respiratory charities have written to social care bosses in England urging them to pull out all the stops to drive staff uptake of the flu vaccine to avoid a potential deadly tidal wave of respiratory conditions this winter that could overwhelm the NHS.
Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have written to 29 of the biggest social care organisations raising fears about the impact of flu in the social care setting this year if it is coupled with a second wave of COVID.
Social care staff have already felt the huge strain of the pandemic as they look after many of the most vulnerable people and the charities want to prevent a rise in respiratory conditions which could overwhelm hospitals and make sure staff and those they look after are protected
The potential threat for both flu and COVID-19 to co-circulate this year is significant. Dual outbreaks would place extreme pressure on the health and social care system, not least because the symptoms of both viruses are virtually indistinguishable.
Around 70% of acute respiratory illness outbreaks take place in care homes. Every year, there is a seasonal winter surge in respiratory hospital admissions – 80% more than in the summer months, and which this year could be much worse than usual.
Alison Cook, director of external affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, and chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health, said: “The social care sector have already been devastated by the pandemic and we know how hard staff are working up and down the country.
“This winter could see the biggest test of our time. As many eligible people as possible need to get the flu jab to avoid a potential deadly tidal wave of respiratory conditions over the coming months which could overwhelm the NHS. Prevention is vital in protecting the most vulnerable in our society, so we urge all social care employers to do everything they can to make the flu jab a priority.
”The good news is that more people than ever before are eligible to get the flu jab this year. What we need to see now is the government getting the message out far and wide about how important it is to get the jab and to ensure everyone who needs it can easily and safely access it.”
The Taskforce for Lung Health, of which Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation are members, has been calling for all social care workers to be vaccinated since 2018.
According to the Taskforce for Lung Health data tracker, the most up to date estimates put the vaccination rates for social care workers as low as 25%. When you compare this to the 74.3% vaccination rates amongst health care workers, social care staff are far behind.
This year, the Government have set out an ambition for 100% vaccination coverage among frontline health and social care staff. Social care staff with direct patient contact are eligible to get the free flu vaccine although it is the employers’ responsibility to provide the jab and encourage staff to get vaccinated. The charities are asking that they make it as easy as possible for staff to get it this year.
They are calling for easy and flexible access to the vaccination which accommodates for different working patterns. This could involve arranging for staff to be vaccinated on site or giving staff time to visit a community pharmacy or their GP.
The organisations are also calling for national data to be collected on how many social care workers get the flu jab as data on this is currently not available. This would help improve understanding of uptake and where improvements need to be made.
The charities also say uptake of the flu jab amongst people with lung conditions must be increased. Flu can have a serious impact on those living with lung disease, potentially making them so ill they need to be treated in hospital, and in some cases can even be fatal.
The number of people with lung conditions getting the flu vaccine is very low. Last year, less than half of those with lung conditions who were eligible to get the jab did so.
However, it seems uptake may increase this year, as the charity recently surveyed over 7,000 supporters and found that 89% are planning to get the flu jab and over half said they were more likely to get it because of COVID.
The survey also suggested there is work to be done in communicating to people the different ways they can get the jab with 54% saying they would still choose to go to their GP and only 10% at the pharmacy and 9% at drive throughs.