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Sick workplaces


Greater Des Moines businesses are suffering through a late, “horrific” cold and flu season that has employees snuffling and hacking their way through the workday — if they’re not already at home suffering.

“I’ve been here for 29 years, and I’ve never seen it so bad,” said Katherine Reardon, a registered nurse and manager of corporate health for Meredith Corp., which employs more than 1,000 people locally. “I would imagine I’ve had 10 or 15 new people each day with symptoms, and that doesn’t count the people who don’t come in. And it seems like it’s been extremely contagious this year; people sitting next to each other in cubicles are getting sick.”

In offices where nearly everyone seems to be suffering the same symptoms, then “it’s pretty likely it’s viral,” said Dr. Dean Teeter of Urbandale Family Physicians. The flu falls into the category of a viral infection, whereas bacterial infections can usually be treated with antibiotics.

“This year seems to be particularly worse than what we’ve had in the past,” said Teeter, who has practiced for 30 years. “I think more people are being seen and treated for (symptoms), and are using medications more often in the early part of the flu.

For those who get an antiviral treatment within the first 24 hours, “it may shorten the duration and intensity,” he said. “That’s good and bad. It increases the number of people coming to the physician, but it doesn’t last as long. So there’s some benefit, but you’re still going to be sick.”

According to the Iowa Department of Health, the percentage of doctor office visits in which patients reported flu symptoms appeared to peak at 9 percent last month, a little higher than seen over the last decade but far less than the 20 percent of visits reported last flu season.

Based on samples sent to the University of Iowa’s Hygienic Lab, the strains of flu seen this season are the ones that would have been protected by the flu vaccine, “so there probably would have been less cases had we had more vaccine,” said Kevin Teale, a department spokesman.

In some cases, people whose immunity is weakened by the flu are getting secondary bacterial infections in their sinuses or lungs, which is treatable with antibiotics. As a result, some people have had to make two or three visits to the clinic this season.

The viral tidal wave has swamped clinics and made it more difficult to get an appointment. Urbandale Family Physicians, for instance, had 600 more visits last month than it did in February 2004. Last Monday, 290 people visited the clinic in a single day, compared with the average 225 people usually seen on a Monday.

“January was not as busy as February, but February tends to be one of our busiest months,” said Clinic Administrator Sandy Viers. “You have less business days to work with.”

The flu seems to be hitting middle-aged working adults as well as seniors harder than others this year, she said. Return visits have been common.

“They’re having an initial visit, and often they’re not getting better, so they come back,” she said. Though health-care professionals are advising those who are sick to stay home, “some employers don’t have policies in place that are employee-friendly,” Viers said. “So most employees try to get back to work as soon as they can.”

Encouraging those who are sick to stay home has “definitely” been Meredith’s policy, Reardon said. “Our foremost wish is to protect the health of our employees,” she said. “We encourage people to stay home the first few days when they’re most contagious. But the way it’s been, most people have had no choice but to stay home, they’ve been so ill.”

Usually, Viers said, the peak flu season lasts only a couple of weeks. However, with the lingering nature of these illnesses, it’s been going on for a month now.

“So I’m hoping for the health of our community that it does tend to wither down in the next week or two.”

Frank Randolph, a maintenance supervisor for Riverview Care Center, counts himself as lucky to have not come down with the flu, despite not getting a flu shot this season. He estimated that about 90 percent of his company’s employees and most Riverview residents had gotten their flu shots, which he believes has helped his workplace dodge the worst of it.

Nevertheless, Randolph said he knows “a lot of people” who are sick, including his wife, who was home last week with a fever and vomiting.

The doctors are rooting for a quick end to the flu season along with the business community.

“Hopefully, we’ve hit our peak,” Teeter said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a particularly prolonged siege of the flu this year.”

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