This year’s flu season is going to be a bit more complicated — thanks to the presence of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.
Hoping to avoid last spring’s chaos with schools and businesses closing whenever there was an outbreak, public health officials are encouraging businesses, colleges and schools to prepare for the upcoming influenza season.
While no one knows how severe the flu season might be, The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is urging state businesses to revise their emergency plans or create new ones.
“Above all, employers may have to be more flexible this upcoming flu season,” said Ned Calonge, chief medical officer at the department. “It may be necessary to allow more telecommuting and flexible work hours.”
Employees with flu-like symptoms should stay home to prevent the spread of the virus.
Companies also should promote better workplace hygiene by reminding employees to wash their hands frequently and to cough or sneeze into their sleeves or a tissue. Businesses should offer seasonal flu vaccinations at work and encourage workers to get the new H1N1 vaccination as soon as it’s available. They also need a plan for how to operate with a reduced work force if there is an outbreak of the flu.
“Smart planning now will help businesses down the road if we have a significant influenza season,” Calonge said.
Because of the danger represented by the swine flu, a group of national business leaders has created the Pandemic Flu Council, which plans to share “best practices” in community planning and pandemic prevention.
The council has developed a survey to evaluate how prepared businesses are to face a flu pandemic.
The sheer number of questions that business leaders have — and the sobering economic consequences of a pandemic — led to the creation of the council, said Bob Mate, CEO of Thompson Publishing and a member of the council.
“The expected swine flu season will present the first major test of every plan for pandemic influenza, with the emphasis of the efficient and effective management of limited and dispersed human resources,” said Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at member organization The Performance Institute, a policy think tank.
Visit www.preventpandemic.org to see how businesses rank in preparing for the upcoming flu season. Once results are available, the group will issue a white paper with recommendations.
A tool kit is available at the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control to help academic institutions plan for the swine flu and seasonal influenza viruses.
The latest recommendations balance the risks of illness with the desire to keep students in class — and provide strategies to prevent closing schools and universities during the winter flu season.
“We know from our summer experience with the H1N1 virus that college-aged students are at a higher risk for this illness, so it’s especially important for colleges and universities to be well-prepared in terms of their strategies for combating flu on their campuses,” Calonge said.
Institutions should develop specific information for partners and make it available via the Internet. Colleges also should assess the situation in countries where they have students in study-abroad programs — including how students can access health services and how illness will be reported to the institutions.
For more information about the swine flu and universities, go to www.flu.gov.
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Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs. Employers should plan to encourage workers who have the flu to stay home until at least 24 hours after their fever has resolved.
Encourage frequent hand-washing and routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces at work.
Plan how to operate if there is a high-level of absenteeism.
Be prepared if schools or child-care programs close, requiring employees to stay home with their children. Employers should try to make sick leave policies flexible.
Consider removing any policy that requires employees to obtain a note from their doctor regarding their illness. These types of policies can needlessly tie up already over-burdened doctors’ offices.
If the flu season begins to affect operations, cancel nonessential, face-to-face meetings. Space workers’ stations farther apart.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Amy Gillentine covers health care for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.