Prepare now

Published 9:15 pm Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The simplest measures will go the furthest in the fight against swine flu this season.

That was the message medical experts had Wednesday morning at a special program aimed at educating business owners about what they can expect and prepare for with the HINI virus, better known as the swine flu.

“Hopefully, we will stop the swine flu from being absolutely devastating to your business,” said Dr. Timothy Lee, the medical director of Sentara Obici Occupational Medicine department.

First of all, he said, employers need to promote basic healthy habits.

“Hygiene is going to be a key aspect of dealing with this,” Lee said. Employers, for instance, should make sure tissues and trashcans are readily available throughout their offices. Additionally, they should have posters reminding staff members to cover their coughs, throw away used tissue and be sure to wash hands thoroughly.

“A lot of our hands are absolutely filthy,” Lee said. “They will stay filthy if we don’t make an effort to clean them.”

Lee said employers also need to plan ahead for the flu season and prepare a plan to continue operating their businesses when many employees call out sick.

“We have to got to be able to deal with potential widespread absenteeism,” Lee said. Specifically, employers should look at opportunities to cross-train other employees, develop more flexible schedules and look into telecommuting practices so employees who have flu-like symptoms can work from home. Employers also should think about appointing one person to be responsible for dealing with swine flu and work-related questions.

“Everyone’s going to assume someone else is going to do it, and when the time comes, it won’t be done,” Lee said.

Lee added that employers might have to be more lenient with sick day policies in order to keep employees from spreading the virus.

A swine flu patient is contagious beginning one day before becoming symptomatic and can remain contagious for up to seven days after they are sick.

“You need to encourage your employees — if you feel sick, stay at home,” Lee said. He added that a good predictor of when employees should return to work is when their fever has gone away for 24 hours without the help of fever-reducing medication.

About 20 people attended the program Wednesday morning at the Health and Human Services Building. Along with Lee, Amal Patel, epidemiologist at the Western Tidewater Health District also presented a brief background on the HINI virus and reviewed precautions people can take to protect themselves from the flu.

Lee noted that this virus is a novel one, given that it mutated from other flu virus strains. The swine flu also is the first pandemic of the 21st century, meaning that it has spread to different areas of the world. But, he added, that is not a reason to fear it.

“Just because it is a pandemic does not mean it is much more serious, it means it’s reaching more people,” he said. “Most people are going to be okay through this. They might get a little sick, but they’ll be okay.”

For more information or tips on running a business in the midst of flu season, visit www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/.