Health Care and Human Resources

Productivity lost to flu locally hits $1 million

Challenger, Gray & Christmas study estimates U.S. productivity loss of at least $15.4 billion.

February 9, 2018
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Experts recommend employers are clear with employees about when they should stay home sick to prevent spreading the virus. Courtesy

As many people unfortunately know firsthand, it’s flu season. Sick workers mean time off work, which leads to lost productivity businesses must absorb.

As of Feb. 3, that amount of lost productivity in Kent County is $1,019,474.

This year’s aggressive strain of flu — influenza A, H3N2, according to Brenda Fitzgerald, who recently resigned as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is producing similar activity as when an estimated nearly 40 million people were sick in the 2014-15 season, according to the CDC.

There have been more than 2,500 reported cases of the flu in Kent County so far this season, as of Jan. 27, according to the county’s weekly influenza surveillance trends.

Brian Hartl, epidemiology supervisor for the Kent County Health Department, said the county does not extrapolate numbers, but there likely were many flu cases not reported. One thing is for sure, “We’re definitely higher than we were last year,” he said.

During the week ending Feb. 3, Hartl said the percentage of emergency room patients who reported flu-like symptoms was 12.8 percent. The peak percentage last year was 11.7 percent.

So far, 1,900 schoolchildren have been absent with flu-like symptoms, Hartl said.

Hartl added the numbers are beginning to taper off, though he is not sure whether that means the worst is over.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently confirmed the first influenza-related child death in the Upper Peninsula. Nationally, there have been more than 50 influenza-related child deaths reported so far this season.

The workforce productivity loss was calculated using the previously mentioned information; the Michigan population-to-employment ratio of 58.5, according to the Michigan Employment Report; an average Grand Rapids-Wyoming Metropolitan area hourly wage of $20.97, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics; and the 2014 average of four eight-hour lost workdays due to illness or injury by employed adults ages 18 and older, according to the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey.

The Kent County productivity loss estimation was calculated using the same method in a study published Feb. 2 by Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The group found this flu season could cost at least $15.4 billion in lost productivity throughout the U.S.

The number was calculated using a CDC estimate of more than 30 million U.S. flu sufferers over age 18 during the 2014-15 season; the current national employment-population ratio of 60.1 percent; the average national hourly wage of $26.63; and the National Health Interview Survey information previously noted.

Andrew Challenger, who worked on the study, said the motivation behind calculating the national number was to remind people of the flu’s effects.

“I think something people always forget about is the actual impact of business during a significantly bad flu season,” Challenger said.

Those effects won’t really show up in macroeconomic data, he said, but it can have real effects on individual companies, particularly smaller companies in which the flu could wipe out an entire department for a week.

“It’s important that employers take precautions and set themselves up for success,” he said.

He would recommend employers are clear employees should stay home when sick to prevent spreading the virus.

Hartl said taking a couple Motrin and heading to work is not helpful for anyone.

“People tend to push things when they’re sick,” he said. “That’s never a good thing.”

Challenger also recommend avoiding meetings in small office spaces.

Hartl encourages everyone to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces, of course, also making sure to cough into a tissue or shirt sleeve.

And, he said, it’s never too late for a flu vaccination.

Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive for MDHHS, said vaccination is especially important for children, adults ages 65 years and older, those with underlying medical conditions, and pregnant women. Children less than six months old are too young for the vaccination, but those around them should get it.

During the 2016-17 flu season, only 44.2 percent of Michigan residents were vaccinated against the flu, the MDHHS said.

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