Most Americans willing to lie low in pandemic

Oct 26, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Americans are overwhelmingly willing to cut back their activities to help cope with an influenza pandemic, but many worry that they would have money problems if they had to miss as few as 7 days of work, according to a survey from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

More than 90% of Americans expressed willingness to avoid air travel, public events, and shopping malls if health officials recommended those steps. But 48% said they would lose pay and have financial problems if they had to stay home from work for 7 to 10 days, according to an HSPH news release about the nationwide survey of 1,697 adults.

In addition, 24% reported they would have no one to take care of them if they got the flu and had to stay home for 7 to 10 days.

The survey results were to be presented today in Washington, DC, at an Institute of Medicine workshop called Modeling Community Containment for Pandemic Influenza, according to the news release. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently working on recommendations about community containment measures and is expected to issue them in December.

Besides being willing to skip air travel and public events, 89% of those surveyed said they would reduce use of public transportation and cancel noncritical medical appointments, while 90% would heed instructions to stay in their own city or town. Slightly smaller majorities would follow advice to limit contact with people outside their household (88%), stay home from church (82%), and postpone family events (79%).

An overwhelming 94% of respondents said they would stay home for 7 to 10 days if they got the flu. In addition, 85% said all their household members would heed advice to stay home that long if one member got sick, and the same proportion said they could take care of a sick household member at home for 7 to 10 days.

On the negative side, staying home that long would strain the budgets of many. Besides the 48% who worried about losing pay, 27% said they would lose their job or business, and 25% said they would have a serious financial problem. A 57% majority expected to have serious financial trouble if they had to miss work for a month. That fraction rose to 76% in the case of a 3-month absence from work.

Americans are less willing to stay home from work than to follow many of the other likely public health recommendations, according to the survey. Fifty-seven percent of employed respondents said they would stay home on the advice of health officials, even if their employers told them to go to work. But 35% said they would go to work.

The survey suggests a fairly poor level of workplace preparedness. Few working people (19%) were aware of any pandemic response plan at their workplace. A similar number (22%) thought their employer would require them to go to work if they were sick, and 50% expected their workplace would stay open if health officials recommended that some businesses in the community shut down. Only 35% of workers thought they would still get paid if they had to miss work.

"These findings are a wake-up call for business, that employees have serious financial concerns and are unclear about the workplace plans and policies for dealing with pandemic flu," Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the HSPH, commented in the news release.

If schools closed for a month, 93% of Americans could arrange for child care so that at least one adult in the household could work, according to the survey. Nearly as many (86%) said they could arrange care if schools closed for 3 months. However, only 25% of working people with major responsibility for children believed they could work from home and take care of their children if schools closed for a month.

Overall, the findings suggest the public would be resilient in the face of a health crisis, said Blendon.

The margin of sampling error for the survey, conducted from Sep 28 to Oct 5, was plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

See also:

Oct 26 Harvard School of Public Health news release

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