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This fall and winter, countries around the world will need to address an airborne respiratory illness that primarily affects the nose, throat, and, in more severe cases, lungs. Highly contagious and induced by a virus, the illness presents various symptoms that range from mild to severe as well as other potential complications. Although the description could easily be mistaken for COVID-19, it is referring to the seasonal flu. The scenario of a severe flu season, as the U.S. experienced in 2017-2018, is a real possibility that has public health officials fearing a “twindemic.”
Since even a mild flu season could cripple a healthcare system already overburdened by COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other government agencies are encouraging citizens to get the flu shot even before it becomes available in clinics and doctors’ offices. The CDC is addressing this challenge by asking employers to have vaccination programs in place, even if their offices are not fully open, and by purchasing 9.3 million doses of the flu vaccine for uninsured adults (up from the usual 500,000 doses).
With low flu vaccination rates due to questions around efficacy and side effects, it is important that employers educate employees on the importance of getting a flu shot, in general and this season in particular. With many offices closed and a high unemployment rate, the transmission of the flu should be subdued relative to other recent years. Also, public health initiatives designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as face masks, social distancing, and school closures, will help limit the transmission of the flu. Nevertheless, a small population of individuals with the flu can generate significant consequences, from employee stress from thinking it may be COVID-19 to overburdened hospitals experiencing unnecessary visits.
Employer Action Plan
The best ways for employers to increase flu vaccination rates with their employees is to expand access and make it easy to get one. In a pre-COVID world, many employers would hold a flu shot clinic. As part of this event, the employer would bring clinicians on-site to administer flu shots to all employees willing to get one. This would mean employees would have easy and free access to the flu vaccine as well as see many of their colleagues getting one, which will encourage them to do the same. The employer could also take the opportunity to educate employees on the reasons flu shots are so important, prompting employees to get their family members, especially children and the elderly, vaccinated.
Unfortunately, with so many offices and facilities closed or at limited capacity, traditional solutions will not work for many companies. Addressing this challenge will not be easy. Employers will need to significantly bolster their communication strategy to educate employees on the benefits and importance of flu shots, especially in the current environment. Although they cannot create a flu shot clinic, companies should replicate its benefits by providing resources on convenient locations to get flu shots in their community and reminding employees that flu shots are fully covered by their health insurance. If possible, providing an incentive or reward for getting a flu shot will help, and there are several solutions, including Wellable, that make the administration of this process easy.
In terms of communication materials, employers do not need to create these from scratch. Local public health departments are investing significant resources to help promote flu shots this season, including providing employers with free resources. Likewise, health plans and wellness vendors are doing the same, so leveraging existing relationships are another option.
Hopefully, there will be multiple vaccination options available for COVID-19 in the middle of the upcoming flu season. Similar to the flu shot, many individuals are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Employers will need to create a similar communication plan to promote this vaccine, but those will not be needed until late 2020 at the earliest. Public health departments are also working on resources to promote the COVID-19 vaccine, so leveraging these assets will decrease the administrative burden on human resource departments.