Thursday, August 27, 2009

'Just stay home' when pigs fly -- Aug. 27, 2009 column


It sounds like the plot of a horror movie:

An insidious virus sweeps the nation, infecting half the population. Millions go to work sick, spreading disease. Hospitals and intensive care units are overloaded. Medicines are in short supply, and pharmacies run out. Within a few months, the dead number 90,000, with most of the victims under the age of 50.

It’s not a movie. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology offered this “plausible scenario” in a report about a possible surge of the swine flu, or 2009 H1N1, this fall and winter. The council emphasized that the scenario was not a prediction but a possibility that federal, state and local officials should use in planning.

There’s no need to panic, but the government wants people to be aware that swine flu could be worse than it was last spring. As for a vaccine to protect us -- don’t count on it. We’ll need to take steps ourselves and if we get sick, stay home, if we can.

The report said peak infection could come by mid-October. But it will be Thanksgiving before shots can protect most Americans from H1N1, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters.

Manufacturers started testing the vaccine’s safety only this month. The government’s vaccination campaign is supposed to start in mid-October, but it will require two doses three weeks apart and then take a couple of weeks to become effective.

And, there’s a logistical challenge. The government recommends that people also get inoculated against seasonal flu, which typically kills about 36,000 a year. That means three flu shots.

It’s possible that manufacturers will be able to produce and distribute the swine flu vaccine earlier or that the virus won’t surge next month after school and cooler, drier weather resume. Nobody knows.

When swine flu arrived last April, dire predictions caused turmoil – but the virus was not as devastating as feared. Unlike seasonal flu which tends to dissipate in warmer months, though, swine flu persisted through the summer, infecting some kids at camp. That worries health officials.

To combat the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations advise plenty of hand-washing, coughing into tissues and sleeves (not hands) and just stay home when sick.

These precautions are sensible, but there’s a weak link. Millions of Americans can’t stay home because they lack paid sick days. They risk financial and even job loss if they don’t go to work. While 61 percent of private-sector workers have paid sick leave, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March, only 26 percent of part-time workers do.

Paid sick days are standard for government and white-collar employees but not for those in food service, hotels and construction. Only about 15 percent of restaurant workers have paid sick days, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The president’s council recommended flexible sick leave policies. A couple of cities have passed such measures, and about 15 states, including North Carolina, are considering them. But it will take a federal law to make paid sick days a widespread reality. This should be a priority when Congress returns from its August break.

To be sure, this is hardly the time to ask businesses to expand benefits, especially small businesses that are hurting, but public health may depend on it. Besides, some studies have shown that “presenteeism,” sick employees coming to work and infecting their co-workers, actually costs employers more than absenteeism. A 2007 study by the Society for Human Resources Management pegged presenteeism at $180 billion annually and absenteeism at $118 billion.

Passing paid sick days would be a tribute to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass. For years, Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have proposed the Healthy Families Act that would require employers with more than 15 workers to allow employees to accrue seven days of sick leave annually. The time could be used to care for a sick family member.

In Washington offices these days, you’re more likely to see a bottle of hand sanitizer or a bowl of moist towelettes on a reception desk than a bouquet of fresh flowers. Visitors to the National Building Museum are greeted by a poster that reads: “Wash Your Hands & Reduce the Spread of Germs.”

That’s good advice. Now, Congress needs to act to protect public health by making sure sick workers can just stay home.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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