Studies explore working in a pandemic, working sick

2 10 2010

The Center For Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) recently issued a report shed some light on the ability and willingness to work during a pandemic.  Lisa Schnirring, CIDRAP News Staff Writer, notes in her article published on September 30, 2010:

A new study suggests that about half of essential workers, such as police and emergency medical personnel, might be unwilling to work during a serious pandemic. Meanwhile, another study indicates that it’s common for employees in private industry to work while sick with flu-like symptoms.

Both studies were published on Sep 25 in an early online edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

In the first study, the goals of researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health were to assess the ability and willingness to work specifically during a pandemic and to gauge the opinions of not just healthcare workers, but also—for the first time—workers from other essential sectors such as police, emergency services personnel, public health workers, and corrections officers.

Researchers in the second study conducted a monthly survey of workers from three US companies to explore if flexible sick leave policies influenced employee decisions to work while sick with a flu-like illness.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has addressed both topics—risky work settings and flexible sick leave policies as a possible social distancing measure—in its pandemic guidance materials for employers.

Working in a severe pandemic setting
The Columbia University researchers recruited workers from Nassau County, in the New York City metropolitan area. The anonymous surveys asked employees about their ability and willingness to work during a serious pandemic. It was conducted from November 2008 to June 2009, a time that overlapped the first few months of the H1N1 pandemic. The survey also asked workers about their flu vaccination history, respiratory protection knowledge and use, workplace climate and trust, and employer pandemic planning.

They found that though 80% of workers would be available to report for duty in a severe pandemic, only 65% were willing. Less than 50% of the essential workers were both willing and able to report for duty. The proportion who said they were willing ranged from 56% in correctional workers to 74% in public health employees.

Investigators found that ability to work during a severe pandemic was closely linked to personal obligations, such as caring for children or sick family members.

Dr Robyn Gershon, professor of clinical sociomedical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a Sep 28 press release that employer policies and programs can help workers meet their home obligations. “Even something as simple as making sure workers can communicate with their families while they are on duty can have a big impact on ability and willingness,” she said.

Among other findings, authors learned that participants had little confidence in respiratory protection, but would wear it at work in a pandemic setting. Only 9% reported they were aware of their employers’ pandemic plans, and only 15% said they had received training.

In what they called a surprising finding, the group found that 12% of study participants would consider retiring or leaving their jobs rather than reporting for duty in a severe pandemic. They said that outcome is a concern, due to a rapidly aging US workforce, many of whom are public service workers. “The development of strategies to retain these most experienced workers during public health emergencies remains an area for future exploration,” they wrote.

The authors recommended other simple strategies that employers can use to boost employee support during a pandemic, including a plan to vaccinate essential workers and their families as soon as a vaccine is available, getting guidance in advance about respiratory protection needs, and making sure employees know about the workplace pandemic plan.

The study group included many workers who were involved in the response to the Sep 11, 2001, World Trade Center terror attack, and the authors wrote that they, like other workers in the area, are “highly motivated and altruistic.” They cautioned that other workers in other areas might not be as responsive, and they recommended that further studies include essential employees in other geographic areas along with other types of essential workers, such as those in telecommunications, transportation, and commerce.

Which policies keep sick employees home?
In the flexible sick leave study, researchers recruited employees from three large US firms—a retail chain, a durable goods manufacturer, and a transportation company—and used a Web-based survey tool that asked them each month between November 2007 and April 2008 about flulike illnesses and workplace attendance. They also collected demographic information and details about employer-provided flexible sick leave policies, such as ability to work from home, adjustable working hours, or time off without pay.

Among 793 employees who said they were sick with a flulike illness, average duration of a severe infection was 3 days. About 72% said they worked while they had severe flu symptoms, on average for about 1.3 days.

The only flexible sick leave policy that was associated with working while sick was the ability to work from home. Those who were able to telecommute were 29.7% less likely to come to work sick with severe flu symptoms.

Researchers pointed out that the study is one of the first evaluations of the CDC’s recommendation to institute flexible workplace policies in advance of flu season.

They recognized that though social distancing makes sense, employers who are setting their personnel policies must weigh possible unintended consequences of telecommuting, such as shirking work responsibilities, against the drawbacks of working while sick.

However, they wrote that the ability to work from home minimizes the economic impact of the employee being away from the workplace.

The group concluded that the findings support CDC social distancing recommendations for flu seasons. “When feasible, employers that implement teleworking policies may be able to effectively reduce the likelihood of employee-to-employee transmission of respiratory illnesses, such as seasonal of pandemic influenza,” they wrote.

H1N1 Vaccination Clinics Open This Week

22 02 2010

Fort Bend County Health & Human Services in partnership with Fort Bend ISD is conducting H1N1 Flu vaccination clinics at Dulles and Hightower High Schools. The vaccinations are free and available to everyone. No appointments are required. The schedule is as follows:

Thursday, Feb. 25th:

Hightower High School – 3333 Hurricane Lane – Missouri City  (3-7 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 27th:

Dulles High School – 550 Dulles Avenue – Sugar Land  (9 a.m.-1 p.m.)

For more information about H1N1 vaccinations visit:

Opportunity for H1N1 Flu Vaccinations in Rosenberg

28 12 2009

Fort Bend County Health & Human Services encourages everyone to protect their families and friends by protecting themselves from H1N1 flu.

“By preventing your own illness, you also protect your loved ones from catching the flu from you,” said Dr. Jean Galloway, director of Fort Bend County Health & Human Services.

H1N1 vaccinations are free to anyone over 6 months of age at any of the scheduled clinics. As more people guard themselves against the flu by getting vaccinated, fewer school and work days will be lost due to illness.

“The more people get their H1N1 vaccinations, the less likely it is that we will have a serious winter wave of flu illness,” said Galloway.

County HHS will be providing vaccinations at the County’s Rosenberg Annex Building, 4520 Reading Road, Rosenberg on December 28, December 29, and December 30.  Times are 8:30 am to 12:00 noon, and also 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm.

For more information, contact David Wahome, the Public Information Specialist for Health and Human Services at 281-238-3551

Using New Technology to Get the Message Out

26 07 2009

Along with others in the Houston Metropolitan Region, the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management is initiating the use of state-of-the-art technology to manage emergency public information

The PIER System is a crisis communications system that conforms to the Homeland Security Department’s National Incident Management System/Incident Command System standard established in March 2004. The Public Information Emergency Response (PIER) System is a Web-based virtual communications center meant to foster emergency communications regardless of circumstance. Acting as a control center the PIER System speeds internal and external communications by centralizing all functions, including drafting and distributing public information. As such, the PIER System is a quicker, smarter, and more efficient use of technology to provide essential coordinated communication such as:

  • Log-in from anywhere with Internet access.
  • Communicate/collaborate with each other by e-mail and live “conference room” chat.
  • Write, vet, and approve joint news releases and other JIC documents using PIER’s built-in workflow processes.
  • Post JIC documents, photos, and video to JIC and agency websites.
  • Send JIC documents to pre-populated, internal and external stakeholder contact lists via e-mail, fax, or text-to-voice telephone notification.
  • Allow authorized Internal personnel to log-in and view detailed Situation Reports.
  • RSS/XML interoperability with other systems such as RIMS or WebEOC.
  • Allow media, public, and other stakeholders to submit Inquiries by e-mail, phone, or website.
  • Track and manage every Inquiry from submission to response and closure.
  • Provide full documentation and reporting of JIC activities for each Operational Period.

During Hurricane Ike, Fort Bend County deployed four PIER Sites in varying degrees of completion including Judges, Health & Human Services, Office of Emergency Management and Sheriff’s Office. PIER was able to pool together these sites to employ working parts of each site in order to provide quick Hurricane Response. Furthermore, the lack of power for an extended period of time contributed to a number of callers asking for a significant amount of information in a very short period of time soon after regaining power. PIER was able to deliver timely, storm-related information in the midst of Ike to Fort Bend County’s half a million residents. The system received over 600,000 hits and the EOC sent over fifty news releases and advisories.

Likewise, the County’s PIER System proved to be of significant value during the H1N1 Pandemic beginning in April 2009. The County utilized this technology to improve information provided to responders and citizens, receiving 1,000 hits per day from community members. PIER allowed for the creation of an information portal and was updated with case counts daily. The information page was monitored regularly and consisted of continuous updates from Central Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Health & Human Services.

Not only was PIER able to reach out specifically to the community, but also to a controlled and private population. Specifically for H1N1, a password protected section was created for Emergency Managers, Hospital personnel, and Mayors. This password protected site on PIER held County Conference calls and posted that such information. Relevant sections from the Emergency Operations Plan, full copies of Situation Reports, key contacts and phone numbers were all posted in this password protection site to provide vital information to a selective group of people. Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management continues to maintain these specific pages as there is still a demand for information.

Although this project is relatively new in its implementation it has proved to be a successful work in progress. The Office of Emergency Management has been working diligently to make improvements based on lessons learned.  The County hopes to be even better prepared to get critical information out to the public and first  responders during the 2009 Hurricane season and, also, if the H1N1 Flu Event flares back up this fall as it is expected to do.

Risk Communications for Swine Flu

28 05 2009

Emergency Management Forum held a “Live Chat” session on May 13th entitled Risk Communications for Swine Flu and Other Health Care Emergencies.   The guest for this session was Suzanne Frew.  Ms. Frew is an international consultant, speaker, facilitator and instructor in emergency management throughout the United States, the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia.   She has 20 years of public and private experience spearheading, designing and evaluating pre- and post-disaster risk and strategic communications, emergency management plans and partnership initiatives.

Through The Frew Group, her consulting practice based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, Ms. Frew has worked collaboratively with government agencies, business, community and faith-based organizations to develop solutions that meet the unique needs and circumstances of stakeholders at the national, regional and local community level.  She specializes in the communication and strategic/tactical planning needs of multi-cultural, high-risk populations, addressing cultural, socio-economic and faith-based concerns of “communities within the community” to develop sustainable approaches that engage priority audiences.

The transcript of the May 13 session on Risk Communications for Swine Flu and Other Healthcare Emergencies is available at:

North American Influenza (Swine Flu) Information

27 04 2009

H1N1 Flu - Lab, jpgThe Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management has assembled a North American Influenza (Swine Flu) information page for citizens living or working within Fort Bend County.

The resource page lists any specific updates for Fort Bend County, along with links to other Fort Bend County emergency resources, State health resources, The Center for Disease Control, and updates from private citizens.

Please visit the information resource page, bookmark it, and share it with your family and friends.

Of course, sign-up for emergency alerts from the Office of Emergency Management, and plan on attending the 2009 Emergency Preparedness Workshop later this week.

Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management North American Influenza (Swine Flu) information