Inoculate flu worries with close care

November 7, 2009
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The H1N1 swine flu virus has prompted schools to close around West Michigan. It’s been blamed for several deaths in Kent and Ottawa counties. A shortage of vaccine is forcing the Kent County Health Department to parcel out free doses by appointment only.

Despite the impact on schools and colleges, not one local business had reported a significant outbreak of the swine flu as of last week, Kent County Health Department Deputy Administrative Health Officer Bill Anstey said. “We do not have reports of businesses being closed due to the influenza virus,” he said.

Still, at Human Resources Group of West Michigan meetings, swine flu is a frequent topic, reported Maggie McPhee, director of information services for The Employers’ Association. “People are certainly preparing for it,” she said.

John Reinke, president of the Association for Human Resources Management’s greater Grand Rapids chapter, said the flu pandemic response in his association has been low key.

“People talk about it in passing, but I haven’t had anybody ask me, ‘What you are going to do if your population is all of a sudden impacted by it?’” said Reinke, vice president of human resources at S. Abraham & Sons, a Grand Rapids-based wholesale distributor to convenience stores.

While the Centers for Disease Control has issued guidelines for businesses (http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/business/guidance/), Grand Rapids law firm Miller Johnson is one of several that have been advising clients about the legal twists that accompany a global pandemic.

For example, a Spectrum Health patient-care employee recently tested the concept of required vaccinations by going public with her refusal of a mandatory seasonal flu vaccination on religious grounds.

As of last week, according to the KCHD, 25,500 H1N1 vaccinations had been doled out to Kent County health care workers. 

Miller Johnson attorney Peter Kok, a University of Michigan Law School graduate whose practice areas include employment policies, said health care organizations such as hospitals are the type of employer that might be expected to make vaccinations mandatory. But an employer must use discretion to stay within the law, he said.

“If you are going to mandate people to have the flu shot, which is permissible, you have to take into account individuals’ medical issues and sincere religious beliefs and union contracts,” Kok said.

But most employers outside the health care sector should educate their workers on prevention measures and provide basic anti-virus measures, he said.

Kok urged a common sense reaction to the H1N1 and seasonal flu threats.

“You have to treat all this with a large dose of common sense,” Kok said. “It’s two flu seasons built into one. So we’re going to see more people ill, and we may see some people ill more than once. But at the end of the day, it’s flu. Most people will recover in a few days and be back to work.”

Because of the relatively close contact that people have with each other in workplaces and the lack of immunity to swine flu, particularly in the young, the virus can end up hitting in waves, infecting many workers at the same time, he said. It’s that combination of numbers and timing that makes the pandemic more challenging to manage than the typical flu season.

“If you’re a small employer and suddenly six of eight sales people are ill, that’s going to put a significant crimp in your operation,” Kok said, adding that a small company could even have to shut down. “On the other hand, once it comes and goes at your place of business, you can move on. A larger employer may have it go in waves through various departments and sections.”

People who end up sidelined for a long time with H1N1 complications may fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act or FMLA provisions, he added.

It’s OK to tell workers to stay home if they are sick, Kok said, and CDC guidelines recommend waiting for 24 hours after a fever has broken. But as long as reasonable anti-virus measures are in place, a healthy person can’t stay home from work out of fear of catching the swine flu, Kok said.

Also worth considering is “having a good idea, and conveying to your employees, how you’re going to handle these kinds of issues. Are they going to be sent home? Will they be given additional paid time off for this? What will happen under their absenteeism system?

“Do what common sense tells you to do,” he added. “Whatever you do, do it with consistency. In other words, treat employees in similar fashion.”

The KCHD last week announced that 9,200 doses were expected to arrive in Kent County last week. The health department was planning to inoculate county residents with a high risk for complications at no charge at appointment-only clinics. Those are planned for 8 a.m.-6 p.m. on three consecutive Saturdays, including Nov. 14 and Nov. 21, at two locations: the Fuller Clinic, 700 Fuller Ave. NE, and the Sheldon Clinic, 121 Franklin St. SE. More than 4,600 doses were expected to be available each Saturday, Anstey said. Appointments are available by calling the 211 Help Line of the Heart of West Michigan United Way or by calling (616) 459-2255.

Because parking is limited at the Fuller Clinic, the department is running a shuttle service. Those with appointments may park at City Middle/High School, 1400 Fuller Ave. NE, and the shuttle will take them one mile south to the Fuller Clinic.

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