Employers Urged to Help Workers Get H1N1 Vaccine

By Beth Mirza Jan 7, 2010
Vaccine against the H1N1 flu virus, also known as swine flu, is now widely available across the United States, government officials say. Adults of all ages and health statuses are being urged to get an H1N1 flu shot.

Vaccine had been in short supply during fall and early winter of 2009, and what vaccine was available was to be given only to certain priority groups: young children, pregnant women, health care workers and adults with chronic health conditions. But as of Jan. 7, 2010, 136 million doses are available to state health departments, government officials said, for distribution to anyone who wants to receive the vaccination.

The numbers of people visiting doctors and emergency rooms for influenza-like illness spiked during the last week of December 2009, after falling for the eight weeks prior to that, officials said. They worry that adults will become complacent and not get the vaccine, thinking that the threat of contracting the H1N1 flu has passed.

“H1N1 virus is still circulating, causing disease, hospitalization and deaths,” said Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat, MD, Assistant U.S. Surgeon General and Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “I am concerned that people may be complacent. I would hate for people to make decisions thinking there is no risk.”

In 1957, the United States experienced a flu pandemic, she reminded reporters during a weekly press conference. When the numbers of illness and deaths bottomed out in the winter, doctors and public health officials stopped urging people to get vaccinated against the disease. In the spring of 1958, the number of deaths rose significantly.

“No pandemic is identical, but we do try to learn from the past,” Schuchat said.

Flu season typically lasts until late April or early May, she added, emphasizing it isn’t too late to get the H1N1 vaccination. Officials estimate that 60 million people have received the vaccine.

“There are ample supplies of vaccine in most of the country,” Schuchat said. “It should be easily available at doctor’s offices, health departments, clinics, schools, pharmacies and retail centers.”

The CDC recommends employers offer opportunities at their worksites for employees to receive the influenza vaccination. Employers also should consider allowing workers time off to get the vaccine if it is not offered at the worksite. Health care vendors, employee assistance programs, and state and local health departments can help employers set up vaccination clinics. The federal government supplies the vaccine for free; depending on who administers the vaccination, there may be some administrative charges.

A SHRM poll found that 39 percent of employers planned to offer the H1N1 vaccine free to employees once it became available, while 18 percent would offer it for a fee. Many also planned to offer the vaccination to employees' family members. (For more information, see "The H1N1 Virus: How Prepared Is Your Workplace?")

Four states—Delaware, Maine, New Jersey and Virginia—are still reporting widespread flu activity as of Jan. 2, 2010, Schuchat said. The week prior, seven states had reported widespread activity. Nearly all of the virus identified has been H1N1 virus, she said.

On Jan. 9-10, 2010, the CDC will kick off National Influenza Vaccination Week, Schuchat said. Everyone who has not already received a vaccination will be urged to get one, with particular emphasis on adults with chronic conditions, pregnant and post-partum women, children and older adults who may have been waiting for other priority groups to receive the vaccine. State health departments and Flu.gov have vaccination finders to help people locate a vaccine provider nearby.

“We expect the H1N1 virus to continue to circulate,” Schuchat said. “Having as many people vaccinated is our best course of action. This is a key window of opportunity: fewer people are sick, and lots of vaccine is available.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

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