One of the casualties of the flu vaccine shortage this year is the availability of flu shots at the workplace.
Normally a number of Mississippi businesses and industries provide flu shots at the workplace that employees can take to reduce the chances of widespread illness at a plant that can have a negative impact on productivity.
Renee Cotton, director of corporate health services for Mississippi Baptist Health Systems, said it is unlikely they will receive vaccine to supply to business and industry this year.
“Right now, any additional vaccine we receive will be administered to the high risk category first,” Cotton said. “It is unlikely even if we get additional vaccine that it will be ample enough to supply business and industry.”
The potential impact on productivity is hard to gauge. Cotton said the flu shots are offered only as an option. No companies have ever required that employees take the shots. And many employees forgo the shots.
So, Cotton said while it is a concern to Mississippi Baptist Health Systems and the employers they work with, there is an understanding that because of the scarcity of the flu shot, the shots available should go to the population at risk from serious complications from the flu.
“Generally speaking, the flu shot helps healthy individuals prevent getting the flu, which could have an impact on workplace productivity,” Cotton said. “But it certainly isn’t going to have the impact on a healthy adult that it would have on a child or an adult with chronic disease. The lack of flu shots is a concern. Corporate health is specifically the area we focus on. It is a frustration to us and frustration to the companies we work with. But the companies we work with understand the need to take measures to make sure the population who needs the flu vaccine the most gets it. Companies really understand the risk the flu poses to those high risk categories.”
Normally, Baptist provides approximately 5,000 to 6,000 flu shots annually to businesses.
Flyers have been sent to those businesses recommending extra vigilance this year to prevent the spread of the flu. Those precautions include:
• Wash hands with antibacterial soap on a regular basis.
• Sanitize common areas
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
• Get plenty of sleep.
• Eat your nutrients.
• Get some exercise.
• Avoid stress.
Effective but not full-proof
While the flu shot doesn’t always prevent catching the flu, it is highly effective at preventing death from the flu for the most sensitive populations.
Flu shots are estimated to be effective preventing the flu approximately 52% of the time. But Liz Sharlot, director of communications for the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), said the issue isn’t whether you get the flu or not, but whether you die from the flu.
“The flu shot is 70% to 80% effective preventing death for those 55 years and older,” Sharlot said. “Pneumonia is the most serious complication from flu. Last year we had only four flu deaths, and almost 800 deaths from pneumonia. The most important thing about getting the flu shot and the pneumonia shot is that it prevents pneumonia and the deaths.”
Sharlot said there haven’t been long lines or a lot of complaining at state health department offices that have been administering the flu shot.
“I think that most folks are aware that it isn’t just a Mississippi problem,” Sharlot said. “It is a national problem, and we are all trying to deal with it. We have some elderly people who are concerned. I’m concerned about my parents in Florida who can’t get one.”
Most flu shots are administered by private practice physicians and clinics, not the health department. And Sharlot said as soon as more vaccine becomes available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is going to be distributed to high-risk patients.
“We are now vaccinating all long-term care residents in personal care facilities and nursing homes,” Sharlot said. “As soon as we get it from the CDC, we are focusing on those high risk populations.”
Healthy? Save shot for someone else
There have been published reports that the shortage of flu shots this year has led to a “scarcity mentality” that has made people who normally never take the flu shot want it. Last year about four million shots of flu vaccine went unused.
“It is human nature any time there is attention on something that may not be available, that seems to generate more interest in it,” Sharlot said. “But we are asking people who are healthy this year to forgo the shot. Even in the high-risk categories, only about half of the high- risk patients get vaccinated. I don’t typically find most citizens get the shots.”
Last year only 152,000 people in Mississippi received flu shots out of a population of 2.8 million.
Individuals considered high risk include all children six months to 23 months of age; adults over 65 years of age; people ages two to 64 years of age with underlying chronic medical conditions; all women who will be pregnant during the flu season; residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities; children aged six months to 19 years on chronic aspirin therapy; healthcare workers involved in direct patient care; and out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children under six months of age.
For flu and pneumonia vaccination information, visit the MSDH’s Web site at www.msdh.state.ms.us or call toll-free 1-877-978-6453.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.