By Rebecca Keister
PBN Staff Writer
By Rebecca Keister
PBN Staff Writer
Do you remember the last time you had the flu?
The chances are very good you don’t, as the average Rhode Islander will only experience the flu once every 10 to 20 years, and that’s just one of the impediments plaguing the R.I. Department of Health’s mission to get more Ocean State residents vaccinated against the potentially deadly illness this year.
“[You may not remember very well] when you had it last and you don’t remember how sick it made you,” said Dr. Michael Fine, director of the DOH. “I could recognize influenza within three minutes of walking into an exam room. The person looks like they’ve been run over by a truck.”
The department reports that each year an estimated 300 to 500 Rhode Island residents will be hospitalized with influenza – defined as a contagious viral infection characterized by a respiratory-tract inflammation that brings on fever, chills and muscle pain – and some 50 to 200 will die from the flu and related pneumonia.
Typically, Fine said, about 40 percent of residents get vaccinated and that’s just not enough to get to herd immunity, where a significant enough portion of the population would be vaccinated to interrupt the possible transmission of influenza between those who are not.
“We’re working hard to improve those rates greatly to protect Rhode Islanders,” Fine said. “People [with the flu] are miserable. It’s five to six days of a fever over 103 [degrees] where your body aches so much that people will say their hair hurts. It’s not a nice time.”
Part of upping residents’ protection is the department’s amendment for its Rules and Regulations for Immunization and Testing for Healthcare Workers that has made, for the first time this year, flu immunizations mandatory for all workers, students, trainees and volunteers who may have anticipated routine direct contact with patients at a health care facility.
Rhode Island is the first state in the country to mandate this policy, which allows exceptions for those who can prove a medical reason for not getting the shot. Health care workers and others under the regulation have until Dec. 15 to get vaccinated but the department won’t know compliance levels until January.
Fine estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 people who fall under the regulation.
For the 2011-2012 flu season, 74 percent of hospital workers, 55 percent of health care workers with home health care organizations and 60 percent of nursing home staff got flu vaccinations.
“Obviously, we are deeply interested in seeing that those numbers increase and get to 100 percent,” Fine said. “We are very cautious about health care workers spreading disease to the people who are most likely to get seriously ill, hospitalized or die [from the flu]. Those are people over 65 or infants less than six months old.”
Children under six months old are not vaccinated against the flu. Fine said the flu vaccine is least effective in the elderly population.
Of course, he said, every Rhode Island should be vaccinated for their health, their ability in helping to prevent others from getting sick and to keep the state’s business sector operating during the largest at-risk months for mass illness.
During the 2009 swine flu pandemic – and widespread fear – during which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that some 12,000 Americans, including 13 confirmed deaths in Rhode Island, died from H1N1-related illness between April 2009 and April 2010 – many Rhode Island businesses and organizations instituted last-minute policies to help protect their employees and customers.
FM Global, an international insurer based in Johnston, at the time prohibited travel to Mexico, where the company has an office.
But Steven Zenofsky, manager of public relations, said preventative measures are part of the firm’s philosophy and were increased back in 2003, following the SARS outbreak that began in Asia. That outbreak ultimately was held responsible for the deaths of 774 people worldwide, though only eight people in the United States had laboratory evidence of the infection.
“That was the time where we built into our business-continuity plan the potential that you might have a health-related event where you may have employees who are not healthy enough to come to work,” Zenofsky said. “The key thing is that we have a focus with our clients on helping them prevent loss, so we really strive to walk our talk as it relates to prevention and ensuring the health and wellness of our employees.”
FM Global employees are told that if they don’t feel well, it is better to work remotely and all employees are required to take their laptop computers home nightly so that if illness strikes there is minimal impact on productivity loss.
More than one out of three employees elected to have the shot during FM Global’s annual fall health fair.
“We looked at what the potential impact of a severe flu season could mean in terms of our ability to service our customers and how we’d ensure we’re able to serve them continuously,” Zenofsky said.
The percentage of students getting flu shots at Providence College during two health fairs held there this fall caused Kathy Kelleher, director of health services some concern.
She thinks that a lack of media attention this year, in which there has not yet been any large outbreaks or scares, may work against those promoting the vaccine’s necessity.
“The numbers are down and from what I’m hearing from other schools, the uptake isn’t that great. I guess I do feel because there isn’t [much] publicity that people aren’t taking advantage,” Kelleher said. “The value goes to prevention and protecting oneself, as well as others.”
The risk of spreading the flu may be enhanced on college campuses, she said, because there are more people in close quarters.
People also have a misconception that the vaccination lasts over years, Fine said. In reality, he said, it only lasts six to nine months so a yearly shot is required.
“From a business perspective, it is really essential if you’re going to continue your operations through winter to make sure every employee gets a flu shot,” he said. •