By Isaac Bonnell
Most of us are guilty of calling in “sick” on a nice summer day, but with flu season and H1N1 kicking into full swing, you may want to save those sick days.
Though the H1N1 virus, commonly referred to as swine flu, first made headlines back in April, it is causing a stir this fall as schools come back into session and as it coincides with the regular flu season.
In fact, it could be hard to distinguish between the different strains of influenza, said Rick Sucee, a Bellingham Police lieutenant who works with the official Whatcom Pandemic Joint Information Center.
“We stopped testing for swine flu because there were too many cases,” Sucee said. “It’s too time consuming and expensive to check everybody. If you get the flu right now, you may have the swine flu and may not even know it.”
Pregnant women and young people are especially susceptible, but the government is also concerned about another group of people: the average worker. This is the person who is probably working overtime to meet a deadline or keep the business open.
And since many companies have already gone through serious staff reductions, this is also the person the company can’t afford to do without.
“For countless small businesses, having even one or two employees out for a few days has the potential to negatively impact operations and their bottom line,” said Small Business Administration (SBA) Administrator Karen Mills in a statement. “A thoughtful plan will help keep employees and their families healthy, as well as protect small businesses and local economies.”
Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who is now the secretary of the Commerce Department, also emphasized that it is in the best interest of a company to let sick employees stay home.
“In America, we love to praise the Puritan work ethic, and with reason,” Locke said during a speech in August. “But this fall, it would serve the country better to praise common sense and responsibility. From top to bottom, businesses need to drive home the point that if an employee stays home sick, it’s not only the best thing for that employee’s health, but also for the health of his or her coworkers and the productivity of the company.”
At Haggen, the company took it one step further and gave employees their own bag of flu-season necessities such as disinfectant wipes to clean keyboards, hand sanitizer, vitamin C supplements and tissues. The company is also encouraging sick employees to stay home, said spokesperson Kelsey Voetmann.
“With the concern of H1N1, we want to keep employees healthy,” she said.
A healthy workplace
The SBA, together with the Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Disease Control, released a preparedness guide in September to help businesses create a healthy work environment:
1. Develop policies that encourage ill workers to stay home without fear of any reprisals.
2. Develop other flexible policies to allow workers to telework (by phone) and create other leave policies that allow workers to stay home to care for sick family members.
3. Provide resources and work environment that promote personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, hand sanitizer and disposable towels for workers to clean their work surfaces.
4. Provide education and training materials in an easy-to-understand format.
5. Instruct employees who are well but who have an ill family member at home with the flu that they can go to work as usual. These employees should monitor their health every day, and notify their supervisor and stay home if they feel ill.
6. Encourage workers to obtain a seasonal influenza vaccine, if it is appropriate for them according to CDC recommendations.
7. Encourage employees to get the 2009 H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available if they are in a priority group according to CDC recommendations. Consider granting employees time off from work to get vaccinated.
8. Provide workers with up-to-date information on influenza risk factors and protective behavior, such as cough etiquette and hand hygiene.
9. Plan to implement practices to minimize face-to-face contact between workers if advised by the local health department. Consider the use of teleconferencing and flexible work arrangements to reduce the number of workers who must be at the work site at the same time or in one specific location.
10. If an employee does become sick while at work, place the employee in a separate room or area until they can go home.
Since the H1N1 virus has proven to be quite contagious, it could spread quickly through offices and gathering places if people are not prepared, Sucee said.
“We’re all planning for a plausible event and we’re hoping for the best: that nothing happens,” Sucee said. “We would hate to see something like WSU, but all indications say this is mild. It’s not a catastrophic illness.”
Though H1N1 may not be the next plague, it is still a concern for Dr. Emily Gibson, director of the Western Washington University Student Health Center. Thousands of students recently flooded back to campus to start classes on Sept. 23 — and many of them could have been exposed to the virus before coming to Bellingham.
“We’ve never had this kind of opening where we’re expecting this many people to be ill,” Gibson said. “I’m guessing we’ll have 1,000 students be ill in the next three months or so. But I’m not worried about seeing super sick people. People will be miserable, but not super sick.”
Should students get sick, Western will not be requiring a doctor’s note to make up missed assignments. These notes, Gibson said, already take up staff time and could keep them from helping more students.
“Out of the 120 to 130 people we see a day, we’re providing sick notes to probably half of them,” she said. “We don’t need people climbing out of bed with a fever just to come down here to get a note.”
While Western has procedures in place to help keep students and staff healthy, the ultimate responsibility lies in the hands of each individual. Literally. Good hand washing and cleaning work surfaces like keyboards, doorknobs and phones is especially important, Gibson said.
“There’s no ability for us to continually clean and wipe those surfaces, so it is really incumbent on the individual to take responsibility,” Gibson said. “I’ve been joking with people here at the university that we also need to change greeting rituals. Honestly, it’s one of the major ways of transmitting viruses between individuals. It’s an issue in churches, in schools and in businesses where obviously the handshake is such an important ritual.”
Like Haggen, the university has prepared flu kits for sick students. They include items like a box of tissues, Gatorade powder and some over-the-counter flu medications.
“Everything but Mom,” Gibson said.
FIND OUT MORE
To download the complete SBA “Preparedness Guide for Small Businesses,” visit www.sba.gov/flu. The guide includes tips for writing a pandemic plan and keeping a healthy work environment.