Swine flu could pose challenges

August 23, 2009
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As five big vaccine makers rush to finish clinical trials and launch H1N1 flu vaccine production before the weather turns cold, businesses should plan ahead to deal with the specter of swine flu, a state epidemiologist said last week.

“If you’ve got a business that really needs to keep going during a flu season — especially a pandemic influenza season — you really need to advise your employees to stay home when they’re sick,” said Dr. Eden Wells, medical epidemiologist for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

People who are ill should stay home for 24 hours after the fever subsides, she added.

“That could be a challenge in some situations,” Wells said. “A lot of what we have been talking to busineses about is to really try to support employees as best you can. Not everybody has sick leave banked or gets paid sick leave. It’s not easy for anybody in this day and age.”

At Grand Valley State University, the campuses harbor large contingents of young adults, who are one of the risks groups for H1N1, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. David Cox, GVSU’s safety manager for facilities services, has led managers in thinking through how they would continue to operate the college if large numbers of staff members were to become ill with the swine flu.

“People kind of jump when they hear flu and think everything is going to close down. That’s probaby not the way it’s going to happen,” Cox said.

“We looked at it from the standpoint of business continuation. If there’s a flu outbreak — normal flu or H1N1 — and you start losing employees, you should start pre-planning:  How  can I continue operations if 10 percent of staff is out with the flu? What are our critical operations? What do we absolutely have to maintain, like heat and lights? Maybe you won’t get your trash emptied every day. We looked at what if it was 10 percent of staff; the next step is 25 percent.”

GVSU department managers were asked to decide how many employees would be needed to keep critical operations running, and who might be able to continue to perform their jobs at a different location, perhaps using technology such as cell phones and laptops at home, he said.

“The message we’ve been emphasizing in the workplace … is stay at home if you’re sick,” said Bridie Kent, community relations coordinator for the Kent County Health Department.

“People don’t like to do that, because of lost productivity and loss of money for some people. But it’s a really important message this fall,” she said. “This is a new flu and we don’t know how it’s going to behave.”

The department is poised to begin a marketing campaign this fall to boost awareness of the impending H1N1 virus, Kent said. Wells said that public health experts believe the flu outbreak, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, will intensify in the U.S. as schools reconvene over the next few weeks.

The Wall Street Journal reported that as many as 2 million people in the U.S. may have had the swine flu. The CDC’s mid-August tally of U.S. deaths was 477. The World Health Organization had counted 177,457 confirmed cases and 1,462 deaths worldwide, the newspaper reported.

As of last week, Kent County had seen 82 cases this year but no deaths, Kent said. She said Michigan has recorded 3,257 H1N1 cases and 10 deaths.

CSL Biotherapies, GlaxoSmithKline, MedImmune, Novartis and Sanofi Pasteur are in the midst of conducting clinical trials on vaccines in the U.S. and other countries. Some 45 million doses of the vaccine are expected to be ready for distribution in October, Kent said. She said it’s still unclear how many doses may end up in Kent County and through what channels they will be distributed.

The vaccine is expected to require two shots several weeks apart. It won’t protect against regular flu viruses.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has targeted five high-risk groups to head to the front of the line for vaccinations: pregnant women; people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months; health care and emergency services workers; people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years; and those from 25 to 64 who have certain underlying medical conditions.

According to Wells, those conditions include: chronic pulmonary conditions, especially asthma; cardiovascular diseases, except hypertension; kidney and liver disorders; blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia; neurological and neuromuscular disorders; metabolic disorders, such as diabetes; people who take drugs that repress the immune system, such as those who have had transplants or HIV.

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