Flu season typically runs from October to May, and while no one can predict how severe a flu season will be, everyone hopes it won’t be as bad as last year.
During the 2017 to 2018 season, approximately 900,000 people were hospitalized with flu symptoms, and around 80,000 people died due to the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Keeping your office healthy requires educating yourself about how the flu spreads. We spoke with Kristen Nordlund, CDC spokesperson, and Joyce Cohen, epidemiologist/influenza coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, about what we can learn from last year and how office administrators can protect themselves and their coworkers.
Q: What are the predictions for this year’s flu season?
Cohen: Every flu season is different, and it is difficult to predict what this or any future flu season will look like. As we say, if you have seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season. Regardless of what’s ahead, people should still take the proper precautions, as the severity isn’t yet known.
Q: What’s different about this year’s flu? Is it a different strain?
Cohen: This flu season is just starting, and we will be tracking it very carefully to determine what is different. One thing that has changed is this season’s vaccine. The vaccine has two new strains, replacing two from last year’s flu vaccine. There is a new Flu A/Singapore H3N2 strain and a new Flu B/Colorado (Victoria lineage) strain in the vaccine to help protect against the illness.
Q: Are health agencies working harder to push the "Get your flu shot" message because of last year's severe season?
Cohen: We never know what the flu season will bring so the emphasis every year is always a strong recommendation for everyone 6 months and older to get the flu shot. By getting the vaccine, the person reduces their chance of getting the flu, reduces their chance of developing severe illness from the flu, and protects other people from getting the flu, including infants who are too young to get the flu vaccine.
Q: Is it ever too late in the season to get vaccinated?
Nordlund: It’s best to get a flu vaccine before the illness begins spreading in your community. It takes about two weeks after getting vaccinated for antibodies that protect against flu to develop. Getting vaccinated later, however, can still be beneficial, and the flu shot should be offered throughout the flu season.
Cohen: We encourage people to get vaccinated throughout the flu season, which can last well into May. As long as there is a flu shot available, people can — and should — get vaccinated.
Q: What are additional precautions that companies can take to communicate the risks of the flu and protect employees?
Cohen: To prevent the flu from spreading, make it clear that people should stay home from work when sick. Signage around the workplace showing the proper way to wash hands and how to cover coughs and sneezes can also help offices avoid the illness. Having hand sanitizer available throughout your building and soap available at all hand washing stations is key to preventing it from spreading.
Nordlund: Host a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace. To minimize absenteeism, employers frequently offer on-site seasonal flu vaccination to employees at no or low cost to their employees. Pharmacies and community vaccinators can be contracted to provide seasonal flu vaccination services on site.
You can also promote flu vaccination in the community. Make sure your employees know where they and their families can get seasonal flu vaccines. Additionally, find out what health care providers, pharmacies and clinics provide seasonal flu vaccines. Partner with a pharmacy or provider to get your employees vaccinated.