Aug 19, 2009 (CIDRAP News) Federal officials today released new guidance to help businesses prepare for an expected resurgence of novel H1N1 activity during the upcoming influenza season, a document that clarifies how long sick workers should stay home and suggests ways to keep employees safe and business disruptions at a minimum.
The recommendations were released at a news conference at US Department of Commerce headquarters in Washington, DC, and streamed live on the government's flu Web site, where the guidance document is posted, along with a communication tool kit for businesses and employers. The guidance runs about 10 pages.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said the business community can help limit the impact of the flu pandemic on society, but they need to strike the right tone with employees. "In America, we love to praise the puritan work ethic, but we praise common sense and responsibility for the health of coworkers and the productivity of companies," he said.
Locke said the new guidance suggests that companies adopt flexible, nonpunitive sick-leave policies that support one of the most important measures for preventing the spread of the virus: staying home when sick. The recommendations advise against requiring a doctor's note for returning to work, because such requests are likely to further stress an overburdened healthcare system.
Locke also emphasized the document's advice for businesses to plan now for spikes in absences as well as possible school closures. "A little planning now ensures that the economy withstands whatever the H1N1 virus throws at us this fall," he said.
Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary, said until a novel flu vaccine is available, employers can help mitigate the impact of the flu this fall by encouraging target groups to receive their seasonal flu vaccines. She said she hopes businesses will do some outreach ahead of time to encourage employees, especially those in high-risk groups such as pregnant women or young workers, to receive the novel H1N1 vaccine when it is available.
She encouraged businesses to keep in touch with their local health departments, because flu conditions can change rapidly.
One of the key components of the guidance is a recommendation on when employees who have had flu-like symptoms can return to work: 24 hours after fever ceases without assistance from fever-reducing medication. That new recommendation reflects revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released on Aug 6, on how long those who are sick with novel flu should stay home. Earlier recommendations urged people to stay home for 7 days after illness onset or for 24 hours after symptoms resolve, whichever was longer.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said federal officials expect novel H1N1 activity to pick up again as school resumes and that now is the time for businesses to review and tweak their pandemic plans. "You're dealing with a tough economy and may not have had time to think through what a bad flu season really is," she said.
Dual preparedness levels
She said she has been traveling the country this summer meeting with critical infrastructure businesses to discuss pandemic preparedness issues. Earlier this week she spoke with oil and gas industry representative on the Gulf Coast. "The country needs to be prepared, but it also needs to be resilient," she said.
The guidance document urges employers to plan for two scenarios: a continuation of the level of novel H1N1 activity that was seen in the United States during spring and summer or a more severe outbreak. In the more moderate scenario, the recommendations say employees who have flulike symptoms at work should be separated from other workers and advised to go home. If sick employees can't be separated from cowokers before they go home, they should be given a surgical mask if they can tolerate wearing it.
If the pandemic becomes severe, the recommendations urge businesses to consider actively screening employees who report to work and devising alternative work environments for employees who are at high risk for flu complications. For example, pregnant women or those with underlying medical conditions could be allowed to telecommute or be reassigned to duties involving minimal contact with other employees, clients, or customers. A severe pandemic might also warrant social distancing measures in the workplace or cancellation of nonessential business travel, the document says.
Guidance draws praise
Tim Woerther, cochair of PandemicPrep.org, a preparedness consortium based in St Louis that includes business, government, education, and organizational groups, told CIDRAP News that the federal guidance contains much of what businesses with continuity plans already know, but he said the document is useful because it spells out what steps are important for companies that perhaps aren't as prepared.
"It's good that the guidance contains the sorts of things that we should be doing daily, and it's good to see federal officials endorsing these things for private industries," Woerther said.
He said the guidance is likely to be well received because it is flexible and doesn't include mandates for businesses.
Aug 19 HHS press release
Aug 19 CDC and HHS business pandemic planning guidance
Flu communication toolkit for businesses and employers
Aug 6 CIDRAP News story "CDC shortens stay at home for those with flu symptoms"