Employers Advised on Swine Flu; Local Colleges Making Plans

By Annys Shin and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bracing for a second wave of the swine flu pandemic, the federal government urged employers Wednesday to offer flexible sick-leave policies, while local colleges and universities worked on plans that included confining ill students to their rooms.

The secretaries of commerce, education and homeland security offered guidance to businesses on how to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus and how to prepare for a major outbreak. They stressed the importance of allowing employees who exhibit flu symptoms to go home and stay home until at least 24 hours after their fevers subside. They also said that businesses should consider eliminating policies requiring a doctor's note to justify a sick day and that employers should be prepared to operate with fewer people.

"If an employee stays home sick, it is not only the best thing for that employee's health . . . but the productivity of the company," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said at a news conference.

The resurgence of the first pandemic in more than 40 years could cause disruptions for businesses, schools and governments. This spring, the arrival of the virus in the United States led to the closure of more than 700 schools, including several in the Washington region.

With the school year about to begin, public health officials expect to see a resurgence of the virus, which is now the dominant form of influenza circulating globally. The federal government has been stockpiling flu treatments such as Tamiflu and is working with GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and a few other drugmakers to produce 45 million doses of vaccine. The vaccines are expected to be available in mid-October.

That sense of urgency, however, is not shared by most Americans, who are either "not too" or "not at all" worried about the swine flu hitting home, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Most said they have confidence that the government and local health providers will be able to effectively deal with an outbreak. About 55 percent of Americans said they are apt to get the vaccine for themselves or someone in their household.

Most people who have become infected have experienced relatively mild illness. Scientists are watching to see whether the virus mutates into a more dangerous form.

Government officials said even if the severity of the virus does not change, it is still likely to infect more people during the autumn and winter than it did in the spring. Children and younger adults appear to be more vulnerable.

Emergency planners from several Washington area colleges met Wednesday to review flu preparations. Local colleges are generally advising students who develop flulike symptoms to call -- rather than visit -- the campus health center. Those with mild symptoms are likely to be voluntarily confined to their rooms until their symptoms pass. Schools are setting up protocols for friends or roommates to bring food to the sick, as well as procedures for healthy students to be separated from ill roommates for a few nights.

"We don't have the capability to move all the sick kids into one dorm," said James Turner, head of student health at the University of Virginia. The University of Delaware, which had 22 confirmed swine flu cases in the spring, is blanketing the campus with touch-free sanitizer stations, said Marcia Nickle, the school's emergency preparedness coordinator.

Many schools are determining the number of cases or the rate of absenteeism that would trigger class cancellations. "No one really knows what that tipping point is at this stage of the game," said John Williams, George Washington University's provost and a physician.

The H1N1 virus surfaced this spring in Mexico and spread to at least 168 countries. As of Friday, there had been more than 177,000 confirmed cases and at least 1,462 deaths, including 477 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 2 billion people could contract the flu before the pandemic is over, the World Health Organization estimates.

To minimize H1N1's spread, the Cabinet secretaries told employers Wednesday to consider limiting face-to-face meetings and travel, to encourage telecommuting and to make alternate work arrangements for employees such as pregnant women who are at high risk for complications from the virus.

Asked whether the government would order businesses to close if the circumstances warranted it, Locke said that it would be up to businesses to decide and that each industry is so different, it is "impossible to make a sweeping statement."

The Cabinet secretaries also said employers should be flexible in the event that schools are closed and employees have to make alternate child-care arrangements.

Staff writer Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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