Ron Wallace, general education development instructor at The United Urban Indian Council in Oklahoma City, isn't surprised that this flu season is being called the worst in a decade.
In his five-person office, Wallace took off Monday and Tuesday with flu-like symptoms, and one of his co-workers — who was out three days the week before — was diagnosed Tuesday with bronchitis and ordered by her doctor to stay home the rest of the week. “I have a number of students in my classes, all adults, who don't cover when they cough or sneeze,” Wallace said.
Meanwhile, in Duncan, economic development officer Jeannie Bowden felt “yucky” Wednesday, but went to work anyway to meet a looming deadline.
“The flu test showed I do not have the flu,” Bowden said. “But I have been on antibiotics for three days and wash my hands all the time.”
Flu outbreaks cost the nation's employers $10.4 billion annually in hospitalizations and outpatient visits, according to Chicago-based outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. And that doesn't include the indirect costs of lost productivity and absenteeism compounded by sick workers who come to work and spread the flu to their co-workers.
The firm suspects the cost to businesses may be significantly higher this season, in light of the increased number of cases. Twenty-nine of 41 states reporting flu cases say the outbreak is at “severe” levels, Challenger reported. Already in Oklahoma, eight have died from complications and 345 patients have been hospitalized. Meanwhile, the number of cases in New York has surpassed 15,000, compared with just 4,400 reported cases during last year's flu season, Challenger said.
Laurence Burnsed, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department, said reports show outpatient visits for flu-like illnesses are increasing. He said it's typically January into early February every year when they see spikes in the number of cases.
Paula Wall, an immunizations field consultant with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, recommends people get flu vaccines if they haven't already. Even the next day, vaccinated people will have some resistance to the virus, she said, with protection building over 10 to 14 days.
“And even if you do get the virus, it will be less severe,” Wall said. “You won't get as sick as you would have without it.” Flu season runs through April, Burnsed said.
Most area pharmacies have run out of flu shots, though immunizations are available at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, 921 NE 23. Cost is $25.
Delta Dental of Oklahoma offered employees and their families free on-site flu shots in October to its 91 employees. Centerpointe Resources Inc., which employs some 150 at its two home health agencies and hospice, not only paid for flu shots, but also required them as does OU Medical Center.
“The only exceptions were for employees who had allergies or those who refused to get it,” said Centerpointe President Larry Coffman. The sole worker who did refuse is required to wear a medically-appropriate mask, he said.
“OU Medical Center takes infection control seriously,” spokesman Scott Coppenbarger said. “Not only do we encourage employees who are sick to stay home until they are well, but they must also receive clearance from our employee health to return to work if they are diagnosed with certain illnesses.”
Delta Dental isn't seeing a lot of employees out with the flu, said human resources director Martha Tumelson, who suspects the vaccinations might be why. Fifty-three employees and dependents took advantage of the free shots, she said.
Like many local companies, Delta Dental also has hand sanitizers spread among common areas, Tumelson said, and in December, posted fliers encouraging frequent hand washing.
Dr. David Rothwell, primary care doctor and managing partner at Salerno Health, strongly recommends employees stay home if they have a fever over 100, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, moderate to severe cough, or dizziness when standing.
“You won't be effective at work in the first place,” Rothwell said. “Secondly, you can spread this wonderful infection to others and prolong your illness and thus your ineffectiveness,” he said. “Antibiotics don't work on a virus. Get plenty of rest, drink much water and stay home.”
By the numbers
Tips to avoid catching the flu
• Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.
• Avoid meetings; consider conference calls or video conferences instead.
• Encourage telecommuting.
• Wash hands frequently and keep them away from your face.
• Regularly wipe down doorknobs, phones, computers and other surfaces with disinfectant wipes.
• Replace toothbrushes every few months, including at the onset and end of a cold or flu, avoid proximity with other brushes, and sterilize brushes once or twice a week in the dishwasher or in the microwave in two inches of water for three minutes.