Maryland employers take flu threat seriously -- Gazette.Net







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As federal officials are reporting a stronger-than-usual influenza season, most Maryland employers say they are well prepared — and some say they aren’t seeing any impact.

“We’re in way better shape than the average employer because of our mandatory program,” said Paul Zeller, vice president of human resources and development for MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton.

Southern Maryland, which was recently purchased by MedStar Health of Columbia, adopted MedStar’s policy of requiring all employees to receive free flu vaccinations unless they have a health or religious exemption. The result is a 97 percent compliance rate, Zeller said.

“It sets up a great defense,” he said. “It’s safer for the patients and allows more staff to be available to provide care.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 47 states have reported widespread flu activity, and state officials already have called this the worst flu season since 2009.

During the week ending Jan. 5, Maryland received reports of 199 flu-associated hospitalizations and seven outbreaks, according to the state Department of Health and Human Hygiene. More recent data will be reported Friday.

“A few of the influenza activity indicators showed a downward trend from last week, but it is too early to know if this trend will hold in the coming weeks,” according to the department’s website.

Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham also has offered flu vaccinations and pressed everyday preventive actions as recommended by the CDC, such as covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing hands often, staying home for 24 hours after a fever is gone if sick with a flu-like illness and limiting contact with others when sick.

When caring for patients with suspected or confirmed flu, physicians are required to wear surgical masks when within 3 feet of the patient, in addition to taking standard precautions, said Rajesh Shah, infection preventionist at the hospital. These patients are also kept in a room away from other patients.

Others taking precautions

Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center in Oxon Hill had a “large majority” of its employees take advantage of its free vaccination program and has always had hand sanitation stations around the hotel for employees, said spokeswoman Amie Gorrell. She said the hotel also urges proper handwashing on a regular basis.

Science Systems and Applications in Lanham has been sending out employee alerts with precautionary advice, said CFO Anoop Mehta.

“We’re telling them to not take chances. If there’s something they can do from home, they should do that,” Mehta said. “We’re hearing more about this [flu season] than in the past. The attendance was also lower at our holiday party last week. There’s some implication that it’s impacting folks.”

Science Systems also provides hand sanitizing stations.

“We work hard to create a healthy workplace for our employees and have made employee health and wellness a key priority,” Melanie Ortel, a spokeswoman with Verizon Wireless, which has regional headquarters in Laurel, wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Verizon also offers free onsite flu shots, which many employees received, and provides employees and guests with free bottles of hand sanitizer upon entry to the building, Ortel said.

‘It really affects us’

Some companies are seeing a significant impact, while others are seeing almost none.

Aries Enterprises, a four-year-old shredding, construction and recycling business in Upper Marlboro, saw six of its 15 employees recently out sick.

“When we have that many of our employees out, it really affects us,” COO Ylrico Alexander said. “It’s the first year that we’ve had that many people sick at one time.”

Aries Enterprises is considering offering employees flu shots in the fall and also looking at health insurance plans, he said.

KCI Technologies has not seen any unusual spike in employees being out sick lately, said Dierdre Crowl, assistant to the president and executive vice president at the Sparks engineering firm. The company has some 1,100 employees in more than 25 locations.

“It’s been about the same as in previous years,” Crowl said of workforce illnesses.

The staffs of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce in Rockville and Maryland Chamber of Commerce in Annapolis have not seen an unusual number of sick employees so far, officials with those organizations said.

“We just had our first employee sick with the flu this week,” said William Burns, a spokesman for the Maryland chamber.