Did We Miss Flu Season? What a Mild 2020-2021 Flu Season Means for Employers

Did We Miss Flu Season? What a Mild 2020-2021 Flu Season Means for Employers

Understanding why the we saw a mild flu season last year will help employers understand how to move forward in 2021.

The single biggest topic of 2020 was undoubtedly COVID-19. From work to home, COVID-19 spanned, and consequently shaped, nearly every aspect of life. Interestingly, many safety protocols designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have concurrently helped prevent other viruses from spreading, most notably the flu. This year, flu-related medical visits have dropped by about 50 percent, with influenza-like-illnesses (ILI) accounting for just over 1 percent of all medical visits – in a typical year, ILI visits account for about 2.6 percent of all medical visits. While less flu circulation is certainly a good trend, it’s important to keep in mind a few reasons why this decrease may have occurred and how you can assist your employees in staying healthy for the rest of 2021.

Hand Hygiene Matters

One of the best ways to keep germs at bay is simply by washing our hands. Many people, both in the United States and around the world, have been washing their hands longer, more frequently, or more thoroughly during the pandemic. The correlation between low rates of flu and handwashing might go without saying: the more frequently and carefully we wash our hands, the less likely we are to spread germs, including the virus that causes the flu.

To instill and support good hand washing habits around your office or worksite, you may have set up sanitizing stations, posted informational signs and educated employees about the importance of good hand hygiene, notably washing hands with soap and water, or using sanitizer if it’s unavailable. While these efforts are certainly effective now, they will remain important after the focus on COVID-19 dissipates because influenza and other viruses will continue to spread. For this reason, you should consider retaining any additional washing stations, hand sanitizer locations and posters in workspaces to remind employees of the importance of hand washing. Make sure to target employees working from home, too – whether it’s a simple email about hand washing or a comprehensive campaign, it’s important to promote good habits regardless of an employee’s work environment.

Staying In and Staying Apart

The fact that we are living in a digital world has never seemed more apparent than in 2020, as remote working and learning allowed us to remain productive and connected despite the physical distance. In fact, staying home is likely contributing to low rates of ILI illnesses – with children out of school and many adults working from home, the chance of contracting illnesses has decreased significantly, especially when coupled with masking and social distancing protocols.

While the 2020-2021 flu season is far from over, as of February 27, 2021, 193 hospitalizations due to ILI illnesses have been reported; in comparison, last flu season resulted in over 400,000 hospitalizations. Though the current decline in flu hospitalizations may be in part due to patients being treated in medical centers other than hospitals given COVID-19 concerns, it is also certainly a direct impact of how social distancing and wearing masks has reduced the spread of illnesses in public places.

Though we’re likely a way off from returning to offices and workspaces for good, it’s important to continue to utilize remote work when needed, particularly for sick employees. Though going to work sick may not seem like a big deal, a National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) study found that coughing or even breathing when you’re sick with the flu produces aerosol particles that contain measurable amount of the virus, which puts others at risk for getting sick. While washing hands and disinfecting shared surfaces and items certainly reduces the risk of getting others sick at the office, having sick employees work from home is the best way to prevent illness from spreading and prevent productivity losses. If remote work isn’t possible, encourage employees to use their sick days instead of powering through their illness.

Increased Flu Shots

Another potential reason for the decline in flu circulation is increased flu vaccination. To help protect against getting the flu during a pandemic, a record number of Americans, 193 million, received a flu vaccine this year. In combination with masks, social distancing, and staying home, flu vaccines have enabled millions of Americans to stay healthy this winter. Though the flu vaccine doesn’t ensure you won’t get the flu, it greatly reduces your chance and significantly decreases your risk of being hospitalized due to complications. To maintain increased flu vaccine participation in the future, you may want to offer employees a convenient option for receiving the vaccine, such as an on-site flu shot clinic, or let employees know if their health benefits cover the cost of a flu shot.

While no one factor can be cited as the reason for the decrease in ILI illnesses, a combination of increased hygiene measures, reduced social interaction and widespread vaccination against the flu have each led to fewer cases of flu in 2021. Continuing some habits for the long haul – especially education on the spread and prevention of illnesses – may help reduce the spread of flu and create a healthier environment for employees, now and in the future.

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