Each year, seasonal flu affects thousands of people throughout the country. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 die from flu-related illnesses annually in the United States. Persons most severely affected are typically the very young, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions. But this year, health officials are concerned about a new strain in addition to the usual seasonal flu strain. Federal, state and local health officials are currently working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emergency management and school districts in preparation for this flu season.
What is the difference between seasonal flu and the H1N1 (swine) flu?
Seasonal flu, with which we are more familiar, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The illness can range from mild to severe, including death in extreme cases. Symptoms of seasonal flu include a high fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, runny nose, muscle aches and, in some cases, mild gastrointestinal symptoms. This illness is usually spread from person to person, and may be spread before symptoms appear. The severity of illness caused by seasonal flu can be lessened or even prevented by getting an annual flu vaccine.
H1N1 flu was identified as a “novel” flu virus strain in April 2009. Like seasonal flu, it is spread from person to person, and its symptoms are similar. The majority of H1N1 flu cases to date have been mild, but there have been hundreds of deaths worldwide. One main difference with this particular flu strain is it has caused more illness in people younger than 25 years of age. Seasonal flu typically impacts the very young and those 65 years of age or older. H1N1 vaccine production is underway, with initial availability expected in mid-October. Please seek guidance from your local health department or medical provider regarding this vaccine, which will most likely require two shots at least three weeks apart.
Why should you as an employer be concerned?
With a more severe flu season predicted, about one-third of the workforce could be impacted. So, if you look at the number of employees your company requires to operate at an efficient level, how will your business, product, productivity and profits look if 30 percent of your employees are out ill?
Flu prevention needs to be practiced both at home and at work. Here are a few simple practices that you can take to protect your employees from illness:
For the office:
- Clean frequently touched surfaces, including door knobs and stair rails, and other commonly-shared items daily and when visibly soiled.
- Clean shared work spaces, such as desks, between shifts or more often if possible.
- Use a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered disinfectant labeled for activity against bacteria and viruses or a bleach solution. Prepare fresh solution daily and use within 24 hours.
- Discourage the sharing of telephones. If sharing is unavoidable, clean between each user.
- Remind staff about frequent hand washing. If soap and water are not readily available, alcohol-based hand gel should be used.
- Keep private and public restrooms equipped with soap, paper towels or automatic hand dryers.
For you and your employees:
- Advise staff to use a tissue to cover a cough or sneeze when possible, or to cough or sneeze into their sleeve.
- Provide conveniently-placed trash receptacles for prompt disposal of tissues.
- Post posters to remind you and your staff of these practices.
- Remind all of hand washing—the number-one action to rid and prevent the spread of germs. Consider adding an alcohol-based soap with dispenser at business entrances for private and public use.
Many of these prevention practices can be implemented in the home setting as well.
The workforce consists of men and women, young and old. Those employees who are pregnant or have children should not only be concerned about their own health, but should also be attentive to their children, both at school and in a daycare setting.
School districts are a part of the emergency planning teams, both statewide and locally. Last spring, numerous states saw school closures due to the large number of children and staff either ill or believed to have been exposed to the H1N1 virus. Some parents chose not to send their children to school for fear of exposure to H1N1 flu. Schools have been instructed to report absenteeism beyond normal expectations, and febrile illnesses accompanied by nasal congestion, sore throat or a cough. There is no standard measure to determine whether or not a school—or an entire school district—should close. These decisions will have to be made at the discretion of the local authorities on a case-by-case basis.
The message to schools and parents is keep children, child care providers and teachers home if they are ill. Teachers and child care providers, should observe each child for signs and symptoms of flu illness and remind parents to keep sick children at home.
For additional, up-to-date information about seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu visit ready.illinois.gov or flu.gov. iBi