The nationwide flu outbreak has already caused the deaths of at least 18 children, clogged hospital emergency rooms, and led many states, such as New York, to declare a public health emergency. The number of US flu cases has steadily increased, leading the CDC to declare that the outbreak has reached epidemic proportions.
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has labeled this season one of the worst flu seasons in the last ten years. The virus is present in at least 41 states, with 29 reporting high or even severe levels. Many states and cities, such as Boston, have declared a state of emergency due to the overwhelming number of reported flu cases. Boston has already reported over 700 cases, compared to just 70 at this point last year. In another example, Arizona has reported 1,137 cases, compared to just 26 through this point last year. As in many parts of the country, the outbreak seems to be gaining momentum in this southwestern state as more than 283 cases were reported in the last week alone.
Frighteningly, the flu and the complications it induces can be deadly. In Boston, more than a dozen people have died from flu complications, with 18 deaths reported across the state of Massachusetts as a whole. Numbers are even higher in South Carolina where there have been 22 reported deaths, 4 people have died in Minnesota, and another 2 deaths were reported in Sacramento, California.
How to protect yourself? Even though influenza season is here, follow the advice of public health officials to get your flu shot. As New York City Health Commissioner Tom Farley counsels, “It is still not too late to get your flu shot. If it doesn’t totally protect you, what it does is make the illness milder.”
Who is Most at Risk?
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by assuming there is nothing to worry about because the flu itself is not a killer; as the figures above show, the virus can have deadly complications. For this reason, infants and young children, the elderly, and people with chronic health problems are most at risk, given that they have compromised or under-developed immune systems that are often unable to fight off infection.
Notably, however, flu-related deaths can occur across all age groups. In Minnesota, for example, at least two teenagers have died from flu complications, highlighting the widespread advantage of the flu shot.
The US Economy is at Risk Too
Not only does the flu take a toll on individuals; it takes a toll on the economy as well. The projected impact of the flu outbreak on the US economy is downright alarming. In an average flu season, the CDC estimates the flu costs employers $10.4 billion in the direct costs such as hospitalization and outpatient visits. When other costs such as sick pay, reduced employee efficiency, work delays, and higher rates of absenteeism are added in, this figure grows astronomically. A 6-year study by the US Bureau of Labor highlights the impact the flu has on the ability of employees to come to work by finding that 32% more sickness-related absences occurred during flu season than during the entire rest of the year. Note that all of these estimates are for an average year – given the epidemic proportions of the 2012-2013 flu season, this will be a costly year indeed.
What should employees and employers do to mitigate the spread of the flu at work? In addition to practicing good hygiene like frequent hand-washing and covering the mouth when coughing, people with flu-like symptoms are encouraged to stay home to stop further infection. Most importantly, schedule a flu shot clinic for your workplace if you have not done so already; this practice helps ensure employees have access to the vaccine, the primary line of defense against the flu.
The Flu Vaccine
The flu shot may not protect everyone against all strains of the virus, but it certainly goes a long way in promoting better health. Remember, first and foremost, it helps prevent the epidemic from spreading. Just as importantly, it helps to protect individuals against complications that can arise from the flu virus, decreasing the burden on doctor’s offices and hospital emergency rooms and, most critically, saving lives.
If you haven’t already had the flu vaccine, make sure you visit a Passport Health office or flu shot clinic as soon as possible, and the sooner, the better since it can take up to two weeks for the body to become fully immune to the flu. It is still not too late to be vaccinated; protect yourself, your fellow employees, and your community be getting your flu shot today.