Businesses urged to be prepared for influenza
WILLMAR -- The phones in the occupational health department at Affiliated Community Medical Centers have been ringing like never before.
Department manager Kris Gulbrandsen and her staff have been fielding tons of questions from employers about the H1N1 novel influenza virus.
What symptoms should employees be on the lookout for? How long should sick employees stay home? What can workplaces do to reduce the risk of spreading germs?
"It's the unknown," Gulbrandsen said.
Local health officials attempted to answer many of these questions at a seminar this week for local employers. More than 30 people, mostly business owners, managers and human resource directors, took notes as they were led through a crash course on influenza.
Businesses have always had to deal with some level of absenteeism each winter from seasonal influenza. This year the picture is significantly more complicated because of the emergence of the H1N1 novel virus in April.
"This is a new type of virus. People are getting sick and getting sick quickly," said Dr. David Newcomer, the medical director for ACMC.
It's spread the same way as seasonal influenza and has similar symptoms -- fever, cough, headache and body ache, he said.
So far, the virus has been hitting young people, especially school-aged children, the hardest.
The local health care system is keeping up, but this could change if flu cases continue to climb or if the severity becomes worse, Newcomer said. "How high it's going to be and how bad it's going to be, we don't know."
What this means for businesses is that they should do what they can to minimize the spread of influenza in the workplace, and start planning for absenteeism, officials emphasized.
"What you can do at work is what you can do at home," Gulbrandsen said.
One recommendation: Keep alcohol-based hand sanitizers handy in public areas such as customer counters and employee break rooms. Another recommendation is to frequently clean high-touch surfaces such as countertops and door handles.
Social distancing -- allowing workers to telecommute, for instance, or holding conference calls instead of meetings -- can also help reduce the likelihood of spreading flu viruses, Gulbrandsen said.
"People do a lot of socializing at work. If you're sitting next to someone who's coughing or sneezing, that's probably not a good thing," she said.
Health officials are particularly stressing the importance of flu shots.
"Vaccination is really a critical component of our ability to prevent influenza and slow the spread," said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health.
Another message that ACMC officials couldn't repeat often enough: If you're sick, stay home.
"We all have staff that really don't need encouragement to stay home, and we have staff that really do need encouragement to stay home," said Lyle Loge, human resources director at ACMC.
The U.S. Small Business Administration advises employers to start planning now for how they'll carry out essential functions if large numbers of workers are home sick. This might mean temporarily suspending non-essential operations, or cross-training people so they can cover for those who are ill.
Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, was among the employers who attended the seminar organized by local health officials. By the next day, the Chamber of Commerce office was stocked with hand sanitizers and the staff was cleaning common surfaces, such as door knobs, twice a day.
"We need to do the precautionary things," Warner said. "Little, simple things can prevent big things from happening."
Absenteeism could hit many local businesses hard, he said.
"The biggest businesses are prepared for it," he said. "But the majority of our businesses are five or less employees. They could be impacted severely. If you have a husband-and-wife retail store, if they both get sick the store will be closed."
Health officials are especially urging employers to review their time-off and sick-leave policies and adopt measures that are more flexible.
Many employers require workers to obtain a doctor's note if they're gone for more than a certain number of days. There's a potential for clinics to quickly be swamped with paperwork, Loge said.
"We really want to focus on people who are ill," he said. "We're really asking businesses to look at and review their policies."
"You need to not make it difficult or punitive for your employees to stay home," Gulbrandsen said. "Reality says we all have to plan for what might be a noticeable reduction in our work force."
Officials are urging employers to stay up to date on the latest information and guidelines on influenza -- but they acknowledge this might be difficult.
"This changes for us on a daily basis," Newcomer said.
ACMC has added an influenza section to its Web site, www.acmc.com, that will be updated whenever there's new information to post, Gulbrandsen said. "Check it fairly frequently because it does change quite often," she said.
The page also contains links to the Minnesota Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Warner said Friday that he plans to spread the word among Chamber of Commerce members to help them prepare as well as they can.
"Redundancy is going to be the key here for people. You can't hear it enough," he said.