Businesses and public institutions are bracing for swine flu, relaxing sick leave policies and urging vaccinations.
The fast-spreading virus poses a threat to commerce, education and government functions, said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who convened a business summit recently regarding preparations for the pandemic.
Providence Health Care has ordered 10,000 doses of vaccine for its staff and high-risk patients at Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, said director of epidemiology Roy Almeida.
The hospitals’ vaccine message next month will be “make mine a double,” he said, in reference to both the seasonal flu vaccine and the vaccine against H1N1 influenza, also called swine flu.
Seasonal flu vaccines currently are available, and the first H1N1 vaccines are expected to be released next month.
Preventing swine flu from spreading will be especially important as more details about the viral infection emerge. One change is how long a person with the flu may be contagious.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released study results that show people can still spread the virus many days after a fever goes away.
“That’s a departure from what everyone has been saying up to this point,” Almeida said. “We’re now talking about a disease that might take people out of circulation for up to seven days.”
It may also help explain why the virus spreads so aggressively. Health officials had operated on the premise that people could return to work or class after they were fever-free, without medication, for 24 hours.
Currently, 21 states are reporting widespread flu activity, according to the CDC; Washington and Idaho are not among them.
The federal government is urging businesses to take a few precautionary steps, including naming a flu-prevention coordinator, examining sick-leave policies, identifying essential employees, encouraging good hygiene, and preparing as well as possible for extended leaves, since parents may have to stay home as the infection ripples through families.
Vaccinations required for Fairchild personnel
Some of the region’s largest employers are listening.
HollisterStier Laboratories, in Spokane, has hired two additional janitors to focus on sanitizing surfaces such as doorknobs; installed hand-sanitizer dispensers throughout the building; and bought respirators.
Fairchild Air Force Base won’t take a chance with the virus disrupting its missions, even though there have been few cases of flulike symptoms on the base so far.
Vaccinations against both influenza strains are mandatory for all personnel, said 2nd Lt. Casey Osborne.
The private sector, including hospitals, cannot require vaccinations in Washington state.
In New York, however, a new law requires all health workers to get immunized amid concerns that if infections spread more rapidly and symptoms worsen, health care workers will be needed to care for the sick.
A CDC survey of 1,000 health care workers found fewer than half got a flu shot last year.
Dr. Joel McCullough, public health officer for Spokane County, said there has been one death in Spokane due to swine flu and three hospitalizations.
Regional emergency room visits by people with flu symptoms are up slightly. Statewide, swine flu has killed 16 people and hospitalized 171 others. But the number of people likely sickened by the virus is in the many thousands, based upon reports of people complaining of flulike symptoms.
Influenza kills between 800 and 1,000 people in Washington state each year.
Public schools not noticing a rise
McCullough said the flu has not gripped local public schools; absentee rates have hovered around 5 percent, well within the normal range.
Gregoire noted that any school closure decisions due to student or staff illnesses will be left to local school officials.
Washington State University became a focal point of swine flu infection after more than 2,000 students reported flu symptoms. The school has been credited for its measured response to an outbreak following the start of classes in late August.
The numbers of WSU students reporting flu symptoms has now fallen dramatically, to several dozen a day.
This week will present a similar test for other universities.
Eastern Washington University in Cheney expects record enrollment of more than 10,000 students this fall. About 2,800 live in shared housing such as dormitories, Greek housing or campus apartments.
“We’ve learned quite a bit from how WSU handled it,” said EWU spokesman Dave Meany.
Restaurants say hygiene practices already good
Restaurants say rigorous health codes and regulations have instilled good hygiene regimens for employees, the first defense against spreading the influenza virus, said Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association.
Furthermore, he said, the recession has cut the number of diners at the state’s 13,000 restaurants, in many cases reducing the number of hours available for employees to work. With workers clamoring for more hours, covering a shift for someone who calls in sick is not a problem.
“Sending home workers who are sick is what we have to do,” Anton said. “A restaurant’s reputation is everything; it can’t be recovered.”