If the flu hasn't already run rampant through your office or workplace, Quad-City health officials say you shouldn't let your guard down just yet.
While we can be exposed to influenza anywhere, the close quarters at work and co-workers who come in when they're sick can make the workplace a haven for germs.
"Flu can happen anytime of year," Roma Taylor, Scott County Health Department's clinical services coordinator, said. But it is worse, she said "during the winter when people are enclosed more often, windows are closed, doors are closed."
Combine that with co-workers who will not or cannot take a sick day, and its a recipe for flu. "Anytime you're around individuals who are coughing, sneezing or have a fever, you're susceptible to getting the flu," she said.
But it is not too late to protect your workplace and prevent your employees from catching and spreading the influenza virus.
Here's a look at some of the top tips from local health experts:
1) Get a flu shot
"If you haven't got your flu shot yet, it's not too late," Taylor said. "Flu doesn't peak until March so we probably will continue to see the flu for a minimum of another month."
Janet Hill, the Rock Island County Health Department's chief operating officer, said while health organizations, pharmacies and workplaces first began flu clinics in October, flu shots still are readily available across the Quad-Cities.
"This particular flu season, the shot is not as effective as in the past, but some protection is better than no protection," she said, adding that a flu shot is good for a year.
While flu is not a reportable disease in Iowa or Illinois, the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, has said it is widespread in every state except Hawaii and Oregon this season. The CDC expects flu activity to be as high as in 2009 when the H1N1 strain sickened an estimated 60.8 million people.
"There is a misconception that the flu shot gives people the flu, that is not true. It's an inactive virus," Taylor said.
2) Stay home if you are sick
"If people are sick, please stay home," Taylor stressed. "Keep your kids home from school. Don't go to the mall, the grocery store. Stay home, rest and get better."
Hill speculated that employees who go to work despite being sick might feel they have no other option. "Maybe they don't have sick days or staffing is to the bone and if they take a day off their friends and co-workers are slammed."
Employers can help by encouraging sick workers to stay home as well as reviewing their sick day policies so workers can stay home without the fear of reprisal. But, unfortunately, it's very typical that sick workers drag themselves in to work coughing and sneezing.
"They don't think they are sick enough to stay home or don't understand when they have that achiness, fever or cough, they are infectious to other people," Taylor said.
She also urged "If you are prescribed a medication, take it all."
3) Protect yourself, your co-workers
Hill said flu prevention boils down to the Three C's — clean, cover and contain. That means to frequently clean your hands with soap and warm water and cover your cough or sneezes. She suggests "the vampire sneeze: where you sneeze in the crook of your elbow." But if you must sneeze into your hand, go wash it.
"Contain means staying home if you are sick," she said.
While hand sanitizer is a good option it does not take the place of soap and water.
4) Clean the office
Just as keeping your hands clean is critical, the office space also needs extra attention during flu season.
According to Taylor, routine cleaning can help fight the flu, including wiping down the things people share: doorknobs, phones, drinking fountains, copy machines, faucets and coffee maker handles. "If your regular cleaning crew is only emptying the trash cans each night, call in a cleaning crew and wipe down the places that don't get cleaned all the time," she added.
For those doing the cleaning, she said to read the ingredients in the cleaning supplies. "Make sure they do kill influenza viruses and follow the directions of whatever cleaning chemical they are using. Sometimes, you have to leave those chemicals on for a period of time."
But it turns out, it might be the workspace itself contributing to the flu problem, says global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
"One potential driver of the spread of the flu could be the open office trend that so many companies implemented in the last decade," said Andrew Challenger, the firm's vice president. "When you take away walls, workers are in near constant contact with one another. During an aggressive flu season, this could affect entire companies, especially for the small and mid-size firms and start-ups that so often utilize this concept."
This is also the season for stocking the office with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.
"Encourage any employees who have been sick to wipe down or clean their briefcases, wallets, phones and/or phone cases, or bags they bring with them to the office on a daily basis," he said.
The health concerns aside, Challenger said the flu can bring real concerns to the bottom line. The firm now is predicting the cost of lost productivity for employers this flu season could reach more than $21 billion. Its estimate is based on an roughly 25 million workers getting sick who earn an average hourly wage of $26.74 and miss four eight-hour shifts.
Its estimate has continued to rise as the CDC increases its flu activity estimates. In January, when the CDC predicted 11 million employed adults would miss work this season, Challenger estimated $9 billion in lost productivity — or less than half its new estimate.
Modern Woodmen of America, in Rock Island, finds itself among the lucky Quad-City workplaces where the flu has not had a huge impact on absenteeism. However, the insurance/financial services organization also took early steps to fight the virus and illness, said Michelle Opsahl, Modern Woodmen's public relations specialist.
Ahead of the Christmas holidays, Modern Woodmen rolled out its annual health initiative to the 530-person home office staff, she said. After providing free flu shots on site and stepping up its cleaning with hospital-grade disinfectant, Modern Woodmen introduced a Healthy Holiday Challenge. On its intranet, it shared health-focused articles.
"We had a lot of irons in the fire and we were really encouraging people to stay healthy and get enough sleep," she said.
For the challenge part, Opsahl said, employees formed teams and earned points for healthy activities such as eating five servings of vegetables and fruits a day or getting seven or eight hours of sleep a night. Organized by the Employees' Activity Committee, the challenge awarded gifts to the top point-getters.
"I think a lot of people did take it to heart and were being mindful (of healthy habits)," she said. "It's so easy to let your health go."