Lead the battle against seasonal flu and colds

The mornings are taking on that characteristic early autumn chill, and the sugar maples are starting to turn red. Pumpkins will soon appear in local farm markets, along with fresh apples, cider and gourds. But as much as we may welcome and savor the oncoming fall, it’s also a harbinger of cold and flu season. And while we can’t totally eliminate seasonal illnesses, there are plenty of steps we can take to ensure a healthier workforce and to limit the spread of germs and bacteria among staff and associates.

If you’re wondering if taking simple, inexpensive steps in the workplace is worthwhile, consider these flu-related costs: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s economy $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.

One CDC study estimates that each flu season, 111 million workdays are lost to flu-related absenteeism, which amounts to about $7 billion annually in lost productivity. And that doesn’t include time lost to “presenteeism,” when employees come to work not feeling well. This has an impact on customer service, productivity, quality and safety, as well.

And if you think you’ll wait until the season arrives, it’ll be too late. Prevention is essential, and for the most part, this entails some simple, common sense measures, such as encouraging employees to wash their hands, offering free or low-cost flu vaccination shots, and routinely washing and disinfecting work surfaces. Most importantly, workers who suspect they are ill should stay home from work.

What to expect, how to react

The timing of flu is very unpredictable and can vary in different parts of the country and from season to season. Most seasonal flu activity typically occurs between October and May. Flu activity most commonly peaks in the United States between December and February.

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone six months of age and older as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease. People should begin getting vaccinated soon after flu vaccine becomes available, if possible by October, to ensure that as many people as possible are protected before flu season begins. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating in the community, it’s not too late to get vaccinated. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.

It’s important to get a flu vaccine every season, even if you got vaccinated the season before and the viruses in the vaccine have not changed for the current season. And while you’d think that this message has been heard, the numbers of Americans still not getting vaccinated is extremely high. According to the CDC:

  • Only 49.9 percent of children six months to 17 years received an influenza vaccination during the past 12 months.
  • The number of adults 18-49 years who received an influenza vaccination during the past 12 months was only 31.2 percent.
  • And only 45.5 percent of adults 50-64 years received an influenza vaccination during the past 12 months. The number for adults over 65 was 70 percent.

A number of different private-sector vaccine manufacturers produce flu vaccine for use in the United States. This season, both trivalent (three-component) and quadrivalent (four-component) influenza vaccines will be available. Different routes of administration are available for flu vaccines, including intramuscular, intradermal, jet injector and nasal spray vaccine.

Even if you don’t have a regular doctor or nurse, you can get a flu vaccine somewhere else, like a health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic, and often through your school, college health center, or at work.

Information, access and accommodation

Employers also can take the lead on educating their workforce about prevention and treatment.

Antiviral drugs are prescription drugs that can be used to treat flu illness. People at high risk of serious flu complications (such as children younger than two years, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions) and people who are very sick with flu (such as those hospitalized because of flu) should get antiviral drugs. Some other people can be treated with antivirals at their health care professional’s discretion. Prompt treatment can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.

Treatment with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick, but can still be beneficial when given later in the course of illness. Antiviral drugs are effective across all age-and risk groups. Studies show that antiviral drugs are under-prescribed for people who are at high risk of complications who get flu. This season, three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs are recommended for use in the United States: oseltamivir, zanamivir, and peramivir.

Children younger than six months are at higher risk of serious flu complications, but are too young to get a flu vaccine. Because of this, safeguarding them from flu is especially important. If you live with or care for an infant younger than six months of age, you should get a flu vaccine to help protect them from flu.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you and your loved ones can take everyday preventive actions like staying away from sick people and washing your hands to reduce the spread of germs. If you are sick with flu, stay home from work or school to prevent spreading influenza to others.

Finally, there are a few other simple steps employers can take at the office, shop floor or in work areas to help protect your workforce from colds and the flu. Here are a few additional examples:

  • Work with your staff or your health and wellness champion to send out regular messages, information and access to websites
  • Increase shifts so there are fewer people in the office at one time
  • Limit meetings and communal lunches during the height of flu and cold season
  • Expand opportunities, if possible, for telecommuting
  • Encourage workers who are sick or becoming sick to work from home or remain home to rest, without fear of compromising their jobs
  • Allow more flexibility for parents with sick children
  • Install “no-touch” garbage cans and hand sanitizers throughout the workplace
  • Encourage hand washing frequently
  • Offer onsite flu clinics for your workers, or work with a local health facility to accommodate your workers at convenient times.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!