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Format: 04/20/2014
Format: 04/20/2014


Pittsburgh Business Times: Warning: Flu Season Ahead

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

By Kris B. Mamula

The flu season never really went away during the summer thanks to the H1N1 virus and could get worse — even much worse in some areas — as students return to the classroom, experts say.

And that is bringing with it a new symptom: headaches for business owners worried about adequate staffing and employee health.

Predicting the severity of an outbreak is tricky stuff. But based on the virus’ behavior in other parts of the world, it seems likely that some schools “will get hit real hard,” losing up to 30 percent of students and teachers for about a week, according to Dr. Sam Stebbins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Public Preparedness. Other schools and areas will be largely spared.

“Transmission can occur very rapidly,” with a peak reached quickly by mid-October before the number of cases begins to fall, Stebbins said. The impact of an outbreak will last a month or two at the most with smaller spikes after that for some time to come.

Between 30 percent and 50 percent of the population could come down with the H1N1 swine flu virus, with one quarter to one third without many symptoms, Stebbins said.

Antiviral medications should only be considered for pregnant women, infants and young people with chronic medical problems.

“Most of the time, for most of us, flu is mild,” Stebbins said. “But there’s always someone who will get hit hard or die.”

The H1N1 swine flu virus is a worry because people have little or no immunity to it, experts say, but most cases have been mild, no worse than seasonal flu. The federal government is scheduled to distribute vaccine to the states in mid-October, which will then be delivered to hospitals, clinics and other sites. In the meantime, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside and Allegheny General hospitals report a steady stream of flu cases.

“Cases from church camps, summer school, group meetings of younger people — this is what we saw over the summer,” said Cheryl Herbert, director of infection prevention at Allegheny General Hospital. “You need to prepare for business continuity. How would you manage with 30 percent of your work force absent?”

Carnegie Mellon University’s recent experience with H1N1 could portend the disease’s progress in the wider community.

About 60 students are recovering from the virus, down from more than 200 students who reported flu-like illness since the start of orientation activities at the Oakland campus almost three weeks ago, Anita Barkin, director of student health services, wrote in an e-mail to students on Tuesday. The number of cases peaked during the last week of August.

Most CMU cases were reported to be mild to moderate, with most students reporting a fever for two days before fully recovering within five days, Barkin said.

The Centers for Disease Control is no longer recommending that schools close during an outbreak, which is expected to ease potential staffing problems, according to Rob Yarsky, director of business continuity planning at Highmark Inc., which has prepared extensively for the flu pandemic. Among the health insurer’s contingency plans is to have half of its Downtown work force, or about 2,000 employees, work at home or away from the office in case of an outbreak. The first test of the plan comes later this month with the G-20 summit.

To read more, visit the Pittsburgh Business Times web site.

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