This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 30 pediatric deaths nationwide resulting from this year's flu — and there are still weeks left of flu season ahead. For the millions of families that send their children to day care, that's a long time to worry about your child taking ill. The good news is that day care centers can fight the flu if they follow a few key guidelines. The bad news? Not every center is up to scratch. Look out for these five red flags your day care isn't taking enough precautions against the flu.
"In general, flu preys on the very young and the very old," explains Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, in an interview with Romper. "In this season, you are seeing increased activity in children, who are particularly prone to influenza." H3N2, known to be severe, is the dominant strain across the U.S. In addition, H3 viruses particularly impact children under 5 and adults over 50, reported The Syracuse-Post Standard.
As CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald told The Syracuse-Post Standard, the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. It's by no means too late to get vaccinated at your doctor's office or local drugstore. But while vaccination is the best defense, children under 6 months old don't have that option. For that reason, keeping a baby home — especially if they have any underlying conditions — might be your best bet.
"If there was a year to minimize your dependence on day care this would be it. It is almost impossible to keep fast moving viruses like the flu out of day cares," explains Dr. Ian Tong, M.D., the Chief Medical Officer of Doctor On Demand, in an interview with Romper. If you notice center employees or other children falling ill, he suggests calling grandma and grandpa for an impromptu visit to keep younger kids from contracting a potentially dangerous case of the flu.
1. No Vaccination Policy For Students & Staff
Each year, 20,000 children aged 5 and younger are hospitalized because of complications from the flu, according to The Flu In Day Care: The Impact Of Vaccination Requirements, a report by the National Foundation Of Infectious Diseases. In previous years, 90 percent of pediatric deaths occurred in unvaccinated children, reported the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Which means that day cares requiring yearly flu vaccinations for staff and children in its care do a lot to prevent the illness from spreading. In some states, like California and Connecticut, a flu vaccine is mandatory for any child participating in a licensed child care facility. While not every state has such legislation on the books, private day cares can still adopt vaccination policies on their own.
"If I were advising a parent about how to evaluate a day care center, the number one thing I’d look at is, does the day care have a vaccination policy," Adalja tells Romper. "Does the day care center mandate that all of its employees be vaccinated against flu every year? Does the day care center mandate that all of the children are vaccinated against influenza each year? Those to me are the two most important things, and the best ways to ensure that a day care center is as resilient as it can be."
2. A Lax Sick-Child Policy
Most day cares have a sick-child policy wherein obvious symptoms of illness will get a child sent home to rest. In order to be effective, these policies must also be strictly enforced.
"Day cares can ... remind parents about the sick child policies and enforce them more strictly during bad flu seasons to make sure that sick children are not being placed in healthy populations," observes Tong.
Beyond that, day care employees should know a flu symptom when they see one, and be prepared to send children home right away.
3. No Ongoing Flu Education
According to Dr. Tong, a good child care center should be addressing the flu outbreak head-on by providing education to parents, community members, and staff about symptoms, proper hygiene, and prevention. If your day care hasn't handed you a one-sheet about how to "cough like a vampire," that's definitely a red a flag.
4. No Hand-Washing Stations
"If there is not a hand wash station at the entrance and exits of all child care areas, then that is a concern," explains Tong, noting that parents and staff should be encouraged to wash their hands and cover their shoes upon entering the facility to reduce exposure to germs.
In addition, he recommends parents ask about the handwashing guidelines given to staff, because most people don't practice effective hand-washing techniques on a daily basis. "I know this sounds trivial, but proper hand washing alone is one of the best defenses against the spread of infection," notes Tong.
You can learn more about how to wash your hands effectively at the CDC website.
5. Poor Communication With Parents
"Always, I recommend parents and teachers keep the channels open around their child's health, including times of illness in her classroom or in the household," writes Dr. Jack Maypole, pediatrician and The Goddard School Educational Advisory Board member. "Certain viruses, such as those that cause pinkeye, gastroenteritis, or the flu may spread through classrooms like wildfire."
With that in mind, staff must communicate with parents if and when flu cases arise in the center. "Additionally, honest and early communication may be a notice to some parents, and allows potentially unwell children to be home for the care and support they need," writes Maypole.
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