Infographic by Melissa Edwards

This year’s relentless flu season could cost U.S. employers more than $9 billion in lost productivity, and a loose estimate pegs potential costs to business in El Paso County at around $15 million.

Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division at the Atlanta-based National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a media conference Jan. 26 that the nation is in the grip of a “tough flu season,” with several more weeks of flu ahead. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are widespread influenza infections in every state except Hawaii.

Colorado has fallen victim to the epidemic. Dr. Christine Nevin-Woods, El Paso County Public Health Medical Director described this as “Colorado’s most severe season” so far, with the most cases reported to this point since 2014.

Flu activity continues to increase across Colorado and the U.S., Nevin-Woods said, with the H3N2 virus subtype predominating.

“Years where this particular virus predominates, disease tends to be worse — and that is what’s happening this year,” she said. “What we’re seeing locally, up until this week, is there have been 304 hospitalizations and one pediatric death — tragically, in a child that wasn’t vaccinated.”

In addition to hospitalizations, the number of people seeing a doctor for influenza-like illness, or ILI, continues to increase, Jernigan said. Last week, 6.6 percent of all people visiting clinics and emergency departments nationwide had ILI; the national baseline is 2.2 percent.

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“This is the highest level of activity recorded since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which peaked at 7.7 percent,” Jernigan said. “We have estimated that by the end of this season, 34 million Americans will have gotten the flu.”

With flu season only halfway over, sick employees could cost employers more than $9.4 billion in lost productivity, according to outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Last year’s milder flu season cost employers $7 billion, according to CDC estimates.

To reach its figure of more than $9.415 billion, Challenger factored in the current employment-population ratio of 60.1 percent, the national average hourly wage of $26.63 and an estimate of more than 11 million employed adults missing four 8-hour shifts.

Tom Binnings, senior economist at Springs-based Summit Economics, said the short-term impacts of a flu epidemic include high absenteeism and “the ‘survivors’ — people who are not sick — working extra hours” and needing to be more productive to make up for sick colleagues.

“Definitely you have the impact that people continue to get a paycheck even though they’re at home sick, but … now the company is having to pay the survivors who are at work overtime,” he said. “So profitability drops and, to the degree there’s profit-sharing at the end of the year, that can decrease because you had this outbreak.”

Absenteeism also increases with workers who need to take time off to care for young children or elderly parents, he said.

Binnings walked through a series of factors for quantifying the impact of work days missed for flu locally, saying, “You might say there’s a cost to business from non-productive time and overtime that, in El Paso County, could be in the range of $15 million.

“That’s a loose estimate, or a guesstimate,” he added. “[That’s] assuming that 5 percent of the workforce is incrementally home for a week (whether it’s because they’re sick, their children are sick, their parents are sick — regardless, it’s unproductive time) plus the overtime that has to be paid.”

While Binnings described the long-term economic impact of a flu epidemic (as opposed to a more devastating pandemic) as “a blip, a minor storm,” he said it’s important for employers to reduce short-term impacts by taking measures to decrease the spread of flu in the workplace.

Worthwhile measures include educational efforts to encourage employees to get their flu shots early in the season, wash their hands regularly, sanitize equipment and surfaces, use their sick leave, or work remotely, he said.

“It’s not going to happen overnight because it’s such a cultural change, so going home [from work when you’re sick] is going to need the encouragement of supervisors,” he said.

Nevin-Woods said it’s “absolutely” important for employers to encourage workers to stay home to avoid spreading the flu.

“There is a tendency for people who feel very responsible about their jobs that they just can’t miss — they’ve got to go in,” she said. “But in this situation where we’re talking about influenza and people potentially getting very sick and dying, it’s really important for people to stay home when they’re sick — stay home from work and from school — and for administrators and managers, to understand the importance of this.”

Businesses should make plans and provisions for dealing with flu-affected workers, she said, including allowing people to work remotely so they can keep more sick leave.

Nevin-Woods stressed that it’s not too late to get vaccinated against the flu — and that the shot is helpful despite the fact it has been less effective against H3N2.

“Even though the effectiveness is lower, which means that it won’t prevent all disease, it’s important to note that it will help to prevent severe disease and also hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. “So all public health recommends that people still get vaccinated against influenza. … It does take about two weeks to have full effect, but it still can start protecting as soon as you get the flu shot — so the sooner the better.”

Vaccination is also important, Nevin-Woods said, because people can be contagious for 24 hours before they show symptoms of the flu, and in that time can unwittingly transmit it to others, including infants who are too young for the flu shot.

“The message is sometimes hard to get out…” she said. “We have so much flu that everyone should be covered by the vaccine.”

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the print version of this story cited a figure of $9.415 million in costs to employers nationally. The figure should be $9.415 billion. It has been corrected online.