Most area schools and workplaces have so far avoided the widespread absenteeism plaguing some parts of the country ravaged by one of the worst flu seasons in a decade, based on an informal survey Monday of local employers, health departments and school districts.
“We haven’t seen any more flu this year than in other years,” said Dave Dysinger of Dysinger Inc., a precision machine company. “The epidemic hasn’t really affected us.”
That was a common refrain among a handful of local employers despite a dramatic statewide increase in flu-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations, which already have climbed to 1,922 so far this season - more than six times higher than total hospitalizations for the previous two seasons combined.
Meanwhile, several school districts in the area said they hadn’t noticed any unusual flu activity, either.
Still, with nearly three months remaining and widespread flu activity being reported in nearly every state, including Ohio, it’s difficult to predict the final impact of the flu season. Even in normal years, flu outbreaks can carry heavy consequences in terms lost productivity in the workplace and set-backs in schools.
The Centers for Disease Control, for example, estimates that on average seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits covered by private insurance. That doesn’t include the indirect costs and lost productivity related to employees who keep coming to work even when they’re sick.
But getting sick workers to stay at home may be easier to say than to do in today’s economic environment in which many workers feel compelled to come in to work no matter how bad they’re feeling, and employers - whose staffs have already been thinned through layoffs and downsizing - are reluctant to send workers home, said John Challenger of the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
“We have a culture of coming in when you’re sick as long as you’re not too sick,” Challenger said. “People come in because they can’t afford not to or they’re insecure in their jobs.”
Compounding the problem is that 38 percent of workers, mostly part-timers, don’t get paid sick leave, and many companies have incentive policies that encourage workers to come in rather than stay at home when they’re sick, he said.
Workforce absences due to illness have historically peaked along with the peak of the flu season, and the wintertime trend can generally be seen in the schools as well.
“The (flu) bug bit us pretty hard…but things seem to be getting back to normal now,” Eaton Superintendent Bradley Neavin said, noting that all four of the Eaton schools saw dramatic increases in absentee rates among students and staff as a result of the flu before winter break.
The flu season hit earlier than normal this year across the country. But there are some signs the number of flu cases could be leveling off after spiking just before the holidays.
In Ohio, overall flu activity declined for the first time in two months during the first week of January, according to the state health department.
In Montgomery County, reported cases of influenza-like illness edged up to 139 last week from 121 in the previous week. But both numbers were down significantly from the 209 flu-like cases reported at the beginning of this month, said Bill Wharton, a spokesman for Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County.
“We’re down from the highs this season and pretty much holding steady,” Wharton said. “But people are still getting sick with the flu.”
Health officials say the best protection is still a flu shot. But demand has been so vigorous that the flu vaccine has become harder to find now than it was earlier in the season.
Clark County Combined Health District Commissioner Charles Patterson said officials ordered 4,500 – 5,000 does of the flu vaccine at the beginning of the season and most of it is gone. Patterson said health department officials underestimated demand after the past two flu seasons, which among the mildest in recent years.
“It’s a crystal ball thing,” he said. “There’s no way you can predict what you’re going to need.”
The health department is expecting a new order of flu vaccine today. In the meantime, health departments across central and southwest Ohio are encouraging people to call ahead to ensure availability.