Upswing in flu cases a concern

But there’s still time to respond, say experts
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2013

In the fall of 2012, Pacific Blue Cross once again offered an on-site flu clinic to employees. But this time, fewer people signed up for the free service, according to Margaret Ng, a Burnaby, B.C.-based health and wellness program manager.

However, when the number of flu cases rose dramatically in Canada this season, the demand was back, she said.

“There’s now a lot of interest to receive it because they’re hearing how everybody’s off sick and (asking) whether we’ll run it again, so we’re definitely getting a lot of requests like that,” said Ng, adding the clinic won’t be offered again this season because of budgetary reasons.

In 2012, the first week of January saw 109 laboratory detections of influenza in Canada, three flu outbreaks and fewer than five regions reporting localized or widespread activity. This year? There were 3,864 lab detections from Dec. 30 to Jan. 11, 107 new outbreaks and 35 regions reporting activity, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

It’s too early to know why there’s been such a dramatic uptick. Some claim the flu strains are becoming more difficult to predict, so the vaccines are less effective, while others say the number of people being vaccinated was down this year.

“Definitely in the media and health news and whatnot, there’s a lot of skepticism about the effectiveness of it. There’s also a lot of myths and beliefs going around about how quickly the vaccines are put together and that they only protect against a few strains a year and there’s no guarantee,” said Ng.

“A lot of people are more weary and sensitive to injecting themselves with something that may not prevent it anyhow. They don’t want to take the risk.”

There was also a big hype around the H1N1 virus back in 2009, which never panned out to be a big pandemic, she said, so that could have left some people skeptical.

And consumers are more informed, said Christine Peshke, a registered nurse for the ECM Group in Calgary, a division of Homewood Human Solutions, provider of employee and family assistance programs.

“People are becoming much more educated, much more diligent in their research and much more critical in their decisions around immunization,” she said. “Whether or not that led to increased or decreased uptake, I’m not sure.”

Season not over yet

While it might seem too late to deal with the spread of influenza, there is still time for employers to try and minimize the disruption, if not this year then the next.

With the flu season lasting until April, getting a flu shot is a good idea, even now, according to Gwen Eamer, Ottawa-based national media advisor at the Canadian Red Cross.

“Every year, the flu vaccine is never 100 per cent effective but it’s always better than not being vaccinated in terms of effectiveness in preventing the flu. It’s one step among many,” she said.

“It’s very important that people are prepared. We spend so much of our day at workplaces, it’s really important, not just at a personal level but also at a systems level.”

However, flu clinics typically run in October and November and the availability of privately purchased vaccines can be limited, said Peshke, so if employers are looking to have an immunization clinic at their work site, they should start planning in July and August.

But pharmacies, family physicians and off-site clinics will often still have the vaccine available, she said, and employers can be creative by allowing employees to leave early to receive the immunization at a community clinic.

If an employer is unable to offer a clinic on-site, it’s a good strategy to inform employees about other locations in the community where they can receive the shot, said Ng.

This year, Pacific Blue Cross partnered with a different service provider, a pharmacy, which left a window open so if any of the organization’s 700 employees were unable to attend the on-site clinic, they could have the shot at the pharmacy and the company would be billed back, said Ng.

“Having that flexibility is definitely helpful,” she said.

It’s also about communicating early and communicating the benefits, said Ng, and really identifying to people — especially high-risk groups — why they should receive the flu shot.

“It’s important not only for themselves, it’s protecting the people they come in contact with,” she said.

Pacific Blue Cross has also provided employees with in-house education and communications around the flu, such as posters talking about how to recognize the symptoms and how to prevent transmissions through proper handwashing, coughing in your sleeve and not touching the eyes, nose or mouth, said Ng.

“Also, we’ve communicated to them about the myths that are circulating, so we can dispel some of those myths.”

Her organization also provides hand sanitizer, tissues and disinfectant wipes in common areas, said Ng.

“We also do a few things where the cleaning services that we contract with, they also clean more frequently the high-traffic areas like elevator buttons and door handles — things like that, high-contact areas.”

Employees and colleagues should also be encouraged to stay home if they are feeling unwell, particularly as adults can infect others with the flu one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after they first feel unwell, according to Eamer.

“We live in a culture that really values work and many of us feel the need to come in and contribute to our work even if we’re feeling under the weather. But when there’s a lot of flu going around, it’s really important for yourself and for your team members that you stay home,” she said.

“(It’s about) making sure that message is understood and part of corporate culture and it’s really encouraged from all levels of an organization.”

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