Seasonal Flu+ COVID-19=Trouble: Avoiding the Double-Whammy-COVID-19 Brief 8/27/20

August 27, 2020

COVID-19 Brief 8/27/20
A Message on COVID-19 from WorkSTEPS Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ben Hoffman:

Seasonal Flu + COVID-19 = Trouble: Avoiding the Double-Whammy

Just when you thought the pandemic couldn’t get much worse, it turns out that it can. But it doesn’t have to.

First, let’s consider the facts:

  • If this year is like years past, between 9 and 45 million US citizens will become sick with the seasonal flu, resulting in 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations, and causing 12,000 to 61,000 deaths.
  • Both the seasonal flu and SARS-CoV-2 viruses survive better in the cooler and dryer temperatures of fall and winter, so flu-related hospitalizations and deaths will layer onto what is expected to be a resurgence of COVID-19-related illness, hospitalization and death.
  • It is possible for people to be sick with both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 at the same time, or for them to contract the diseases one after the other. At-risk populations will be particularly vulnerable to this one-two punch.
  • Because the symptoms of the seasonal flu and COVID-19 are similar, those who become sick from the flu will be presumed to have COVID-19, which means testing and – until results are confirmed – contact tracing and quarantining of close contacts. The bottom line for employers is higher direct costs, productivity losses and business disruption from the flu this year.

Pretty grim, so let me lighten the mood a bit. Consider these facts:

  • Countries in the southern hemisphere have experienced a very mild flu season, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths at just a fraction of what they normally experience. As the flu shifts to the northern hemisphere, there is hope that our experience could parallel what has happened south of the equator.
  • Researchers believe that the pandemic-related precautions that have been in place around the world have played a key role in moderating the flu in the southern hemisphere. The things being done to curtail COVID-19 are also slowing the spread of the flu.
  • Unlike COVID-19, we already have safe and effective vaccines to help prevent the flu.

In summary, as we go into fall the stage is set for a tragedy of illness, death and further economic loss. But employers can help re-write the script for a happier (if not happy) time ahead.

Two Key Goals

To avoid the double-whammy of Flu + COVID-19 employers should focus on two key goals:

  1. Flu shots: Last year, less than 50% of US adults were vaccinated against flu. This year, the CDC’s goal is at least 65%. The minimum goal for employers should be 65% of employees and adult dependents get a flu shot, whether they’re on your insurance plan or not; and
  2. COVID-19 Prevention: Maintain vigilance in implementing your COVID-19 prevention strategy, because the things you’re doing to protect employees from COVID-19 will also prevent the spread of the flu.

Seven Urgent Action Steps

I say “urgent” because the flu season kicks off in early October. If you’ve not yet begun intensive and creative planning for this coming flu season, you must start now to avoid the double-whammy. The seven steps I recommend:

  1. Engage Key Stakeholders: Share this article with the stakeholders who need to be involved in planning and executing your flu prevention plan. Help them understand the threat and necessity of focusing on flu while also remaining vigilant in COVID-19 prevention.
  2. Double-Down on Your COVID-19 Strategy: The things you’re doing to protect employees while they’re at work, and the efforts you’re making to educate, encourage and equip employees to be safer away from work will also help prevent the flu. This is not the time to let down your guard.
  3. Plan to Re-Invent: Our tendency with things like flu prevention is to repeat whatever we did in years past. Even if you don’t have a significant chunk of your workforce working from home, this year is not like last year. So, before you press “repeat,” think critically about your situation and how your strategy to prevent flu needs to adapt.
  4. Engage Your Vendors to Problem-Solve: If you have trusted vendors that have helped you with flu vaccinations in the past, bring them into your process early, share with them the details of how your landscape has changed, and press them to help you problem-solve the issues that need to be addressed.
  5. Engage Employees: Start your communication campaign early, keep your messaging fresh, and stick with it until you have reached your goal. Use guidance provided in this article as you plot your communication strategy. Also, consider a creative approach to incentives that connects your company’s health to the health of the community…perhaps for every employee vaccinated, you donate $5 toward providing flu vaccines to uninsured people in your community. Note: We’re developing a set of posters that companies can use to promote flu vaccinations this fall. To receive the set of six customizable posters, contact us.
  6. Focus on High Risk Employees and Dependents: Engage your data vendor, health plan or broker/consultant to use claims data to identify and then reach out to at-risk employees and dependents with information and encouragement to get vaccinated against the flu this year. On top of that, use other communication channels to educate employees about who is at risk and the importance of getting a flu shot.
  7. Track and Monitor: This is not the year to wait until the flu season is over and then figure out if you hit your vaccination targets. Ask your vendor-partners to set up a dashboard so you can see on an at-least monthly-basis, and ideally at the site-level, whether you’re on track to hit your goals or not.

Laying the Foundation for COVID-19 Vaccination

A recent HBR titled Why Businesses Must Help Build Trust in a COVID-19 Vaccine notes that “Even safe and effective vaccines only work to protect the population if enough people are immunized. Unfortunately, there is already ample public opinion data to suggest that, egged on by anti-vaccine activists, large numbers of people won’t accept immunization.” The article suggests that companies can play a role in improving health literacy overall and can help employees recognize the important role vaccination will play in enabling a return to the full reopening of workplaces and the economy.

The HBR blog mentions CONVINCE an organization that has recently launched to advocate workforce use of new COVID-19 vaccines once available. An old friend/colleague of mine, Dr. Scott Ratzan is involved, and WorkSTEPS is exploring ways we might help support their efforts. More to come, but in the meantime, follow the link above to learn more.

By implementing a robust seasonal flu vaccination effort this fall, your company is effectively laying the foundation for success in vaccinating employees and dependents against COVID-19 when a vaccine becomes available.

I know – yet another plate to spin. This crisis has taxed corporate health and safety resources. If your organization needs help managing COVID-19, thinking through your seasonal flu strategy or better communicating with employees about all of this, get in touch with us here.  You can learn more about our COVID-19 services here.

Ben Hoffman, MD, MPH
Chief Medical Officer, WorkSTEPS