Nearly everyone has come to work sick during their career—more than 70 percent of respondents to a recent Monster.com poll said they drag themselves to their jobs when they are under the weather. But for the 2009-2010 flu season, the federal government—via presidential addresses, public safety announcements on YouTube, and children’s television characters—is loudly encouraging all workers to stay home if they are sick.
Why the sudden push to keep ill workers at home this fall?
The 2009 H1N1 influenza A virus is “a brand new flu virus,” said Lisa M. Koonin, MN, MPH, senior advisor on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) H1N1 taskforce. “Very few of us have immunity to it. Almost everyone is susceptible.”
As children return to school across the country, more reports of H1N1 flu are cropping up, particularly in the southeastern states, where schools opened early in August 2009, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, during a news conference on Sept. 3, 2009.
And because a vaccine will not be available until at least mid-October 2009, Koonin said, it’s particularly important that sick people stay home and not spread the virus to co-workers. Many employers already are changing their sick leave policies. (See Flu Prompts Companies to Examine Sick Leave at SHRM Online’s Employee Relations page.)
The good news, Frieden said, is that the H1N1 virus, also called swine flu, has not mutated to cause more severe illness or death. Countries in the southern hemisphere, where the winter flu season has drawn to a close, have not see an increase in severity or deaths.
However, in those countries, large numbers of people were ill and “hospitals were challenged to keep up,” Frieden said. He asked employers not to require sick workers to obtain a doctor’s note to return to work, as that would overwhelm busy doctors’ offices this flu season.
In fact, Frieden said, most people who contract the flu don’t need to go to the doctor. He encouraged otherwise healthy people who come down with flu to stay home and not see a physician.
In an effort to keep health care workers healthy and safe, Frieden said, the CDC and the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) asked the Institutes of Medicine to report on what masks health care workers should use. The report recommends using fit-tested N95 respirators in accordance with OSHA guidelines.
While healthy adults seem to recover relatively easily from the flu, children and adults with underlying serious health conditions or disabilities—including asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy and other neurodevelopmental conditions—are affected more strongly and get sicker, Frieden said. Members of these populations should go to the doctor as soon as they start to feel ill, he said.
Frieden added that otherwise healthy children and adults who have the flu and suddenly have difficulty breathing, or who recover from the flu and then get sick again, should also see a doctor right away.
“We don’t know for sure if [H1N1] flu will be more or less severe” than seasonal flu, Frieden said. “But influenza can be a severe disease.”
Other groups who are highly susceptible to and seem to get sicker from the H1N1 virus are pregnant women, children and young adults, Koonin said. They should be among the first people to receive the vaccine. Others at the front of the line for the shots should be caretakers of young children and health care workers, she added.
“ [A] vaccine is our most powerful tool for controlling flu because it gives us immunity,” Koonin said. There will not be enough vaccine to immunize all 300 million residents of the United States right away, she said, which is why the CDC has identified these priority groups.
The new vaccine was undergoing clinical trials to test for safety and efficacy, she said, noting that the vaccine is being developed in the same manner as the seasonal flu vaccine has been for many years.
“The seasonal flu vaccine is out now, and we really encourage businesses to host their own flu clinics and encourage workers to get their shot. Businesses could also consider giving workers time off so they can get the vaccine,” Koonin said.
In the meantime, the best defense against catching and spreading the flu is to wash your hands often, cover your cough or sneeze, and stay home if you are sick, experts recommend.
H1N1 flu has caused more than 8,800 hospitalizations and 550 deaths in 2009, the CDC reports.
Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.