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Flu, sick workers slam workplace productivity

Flu outbreaks cost the nation's employers $10.4 billion annually in hospitalizations and outpatient visits, studies show.
by Paula Burkes Published: January 13, 2013

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.

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by Paula Burkes
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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Oklahoma flu

By the numbers

6: Oklahomans died recently of complications from the flu

92 were hospitalized last week with the flu

345: Total hospitalizations this flu season

8: Total deaths for this flu season

$10.4 billion: Annual national cost to employers in hospitalizations, outpatient visits

SOURCES: The Oklahoma State Health Department

and the Centers for Disease Control

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.

SOURCES: Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., Delta Dental of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City-County Health Department


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