The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September that the 2017-18 flu season was one of the worst on record.
Some 80,000 Americans died, making it the deadliest season in more than four decades. With this year’s flu season approaching, health experts and employers are taking action to keep employees healthy.
The CDC predicts flu activity will begin this year as early as November and may continue to spread as late as May 2019. They also add that flu activity usually peaks in the United States between December and February.
HR departments nationwide are preparing for ways to keep their workplace safe from what has the potential to be another epidemic.
Danielle Ozer, executive vice president, brokerage services at Benefits Solutions Group LLC, suggests employers and managers should inform employees about the dangers of the flu, enforce certain health rules and make flu shots available.
“Educating employees and pushing things around the office like washing your hands, staying home until your fever is clear, any precautions you would get from your doctor,” Ozer said. “[My company] hooks up our employers with vendors to administer flu shots on site. That makes it easy for people, so they don’t have to run out to their primary care physician or a pharmacy to get it done.”
The CDC published its final estimates on the 2017 flu season in late October, estimating that only 37 percent of Americans got vaccinated last season.
Dr. Pat Lord said the lack of vaccinated people was one of many reasons why last year’s flu season turned out to be so difficult. Lord said it’s imperative for companies to offer employees flu shots.
“Getting the vaccine allows your bodies to build antibodies,” said Lord, a virologist at Wake Forest University. “So, when you are exposed to the virus by someone that is sick, the antibodies stick to the virus and prevent the virus from getting into the cell.”
The CDC’s 2018 forecast cites daily protective actions to ward off influenza. Avoiding sick people and hand-washing helps reduce the spread of germs, and coughing into the elbow helps.
When someone coughs, they are typically propelling droplets at about 100 miles per hour, according to Lord. Those droplets can contain hundreds of thousands of copies of the flu virus. Coughing into the elbow prevents the virus from becoming airborne and spreading.
If an employee happens to experience flu-like symptoms, they should be advised to stay home to prevent spreading the flu to others. For those who haven’t experienced symptoms but want to be cautious, they can check out the website FluNearYou, which tracks how much the flu is being spread in specific areas by ZIP code.
While plenty of resources exist to prevent and control the flu, Lord said employers still should have a no-tolerance policy with the illness. Being too lenient with the flu can be very problematic, she added.
“[Employers need to] get the message out that if you’re running a fever and sick and coughing, stay home,” Lord said. “That’s so important. You should not power through when you’re sick. You need to stay home because you’re putting your co-workers at risk and it’s getting spread out.”