While the end of the second wave of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus activity might be in sight, employers were taking action to protect employees from infection during the height of the disease in fall 2009.
According to Quest Diagnostics, which is the only company in the U.S. that performs H1N1 laboratory testing, testing rates fell by 75 percent between the fall’s peak week of Oct. 28, 2009, and Dec. 9, 2009. The first wave of testing started in early May 2009, following the discovery of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, in the United States. The second wave began in late August, coinciding with children returning to school. They caught the virus and then spread it to friends and family members, launching the virus into the larger community, Quest officials said in a news release.
Quest officials said they could not explain the recent drop in testing demand, though they suggested possible reasons: Tens of millions of Americans have already been sick with the H1N1 flu, millions have received the H1N1 vaccination, and doctors are ordering fewer tests.
H1N1 continues to be the predominant flu strain in the country, Quest said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 34 million and 67 million cases of 2009 H1N1 occurred between April and Nov. 14, 2009. Between 154,000 and 303,000 2009 H1N1-related hospitalizations occurred during this time. Between 7,070 and 13,930 deaths related to this flu took place in this time period as well. Most of the cases, hospitalizations and deaths took place between Oct. 17 and Nov. 14, 2009, the CDC reported.
(See this page for the CDC’s explanation of how it uses statistical modeling to estimate the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths attributable to flu. Many cases of flu go unreported, making the job of counting flu cases challenging.)
Many employers around the world have done their part to prevent the spread of flu, according to a Mercer survey. They are concerned primarily with hygiene and prevention, health information and advice, education and communication, and absence management, they told Mercer. More than half have a local contingency plan that applies to some or all functions, but only one-quarter of companies have integrated contingency plans that apply to all functions and all locations.
Mercer’s survey includes responses from nearly 1,000 organizations located in the United States, Latin America, Canada, Asia Pacific and Europe. It was conducted in October 2009.
The majority of workplaces distributed hand sanitizers (94 percent). They increased office cleaning (64 percent) and provided educational sessions (54 percent).
Two-thirds of companies have communicated to their employees what is expected of them in case the company is affected by the H1N1 virus. More organizations in Latin America (77 percent) and Asia (74 percent) have done so than other regions, Mercer found, probably because of the number of cases found there earlier. Of the companies that have communicated with their employees about the flu, 98 percent provided information on washing hands and covering coughs, as well as flu and health care protocols (88 percent). Just over half of companies told employees how to access information about possible restrictions or quarantines.
The majority of employers (95 percent) have up-to-date contact information on their employees in the event of illness, as well as up-to-date client information to notify them in case of business interruption. More than one-third indicated that they have met with medical and absence management vendors to review absence duration and return-to-work guidelines for their employees.
“Communication with your vendors is just as important as with your employees,” said Russell Robbins, M.D., a principal and senior consultant for Mercer’s health and benefits consulting business. “Employers can still be impacted even if all of their employees are healthy but their supplier is unable to provide goods or services due to H1N1 or a school closure requires healthy employees to stay home to provide care to a family member.”
Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.