Flu shot shortage stirs corporate change of heart

Some local companies cancel vaccine programs

Others offer nasal spray option

October 09, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Officials at M&T Bank abandoned plans to offer their employees flu vaccines when they heard the shots were in short supply.

Northrop Grumman Corp. - which usually orders between 3,000 and 4,000 flu shots to give its workers in the region - said it, too, will likely have to cancel its vaccination program. And the Traffic Group Inc., a Baltimore engineering firm, is planning to offer FluMist instead of shots to the 20 workers who usually participate in its vaccine program.

Millions of workers get their flu shots at the office each year. It's a perk companies offer because it's relatively inexpensive and can reduce sick leave, experts said.

But as the unexpected shortage of flu vaccines became clear this week, businesses scrambled to make alternate plans for their annual in-house flu clinics and many said they won't be able to offer them. The upshot, experts said, could be even more sick days for workers this year.

Sick days cost corporate America billions of dollars annually, and flu is the No. 1 cause of workplace absence, said Roslyn Stone, chairwoman of the Centers for Disease Control's working group on workplace flu prevention.

Workers who receive flu shots take 43 percent fewer sick days and need 44 percent fewer doctor's visits than those who don't get the shots, she said.

"The workplace is one of the single most common places that Americans get flu shots, and this year, only those at very high risk will be getting them in the workplace," said Stone, who also is chief operating officer of Corporate Wellness Inc., a New York company that serves as a medical department for midsize companies.

Earlier this week, the California company that supplies the United States with half of its influenza vaccine said it would not be able to provide any this year. British regulators suspended the production license for the company's Liverpool manufacturing facility, blocking it from releasing any of the vaccine.

Stone said that of the approximately 100 million flu shots administered each year, somewhere between 10 million and 20 million are estimated to be given out in the workplace.

Valley Lighting, a commercial lighting fixture supplier in Linthicum, has offered 42 workers the option of receiving flu shots at the company's expense for the past four years. This year, because of the vaccine shortage, Valley Lighting is paying more than double what it normally would to give FluMist to those who want it, said Rick McIntyre, who arranges the company's flu clinic.

"The cost is greater if you have people out with flu than getting these vaccines," McIntyre said. "And it's for the well-being of the employees."

Valley Lighting pushed the date of its clinic up to Oct. 22 from Nov. 5 to make sure there are enough FluMist and vaccinations in stock to treat its employees. Workers who cannot take FluMist, which is recommended for ages 5 to 49, will get the vaccine, McIntyre said.

Valley Lighting will pay $45 per person for the FluMist compared with $22 for each shot, he said.

"I still think that it's money well spent to keep everybody healthy," McIntyre said.

When workers call in sick with the flu, tasks are left undone, quality of work can go down and productivity slows, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an international outplacement company in Chicago. And if the illness spreads and several workers in one department call in sick, the situation worsens.

"In jobs where you need to be there and the number of people who are out hits a critical margin, then you can begin to see real problems," Challenger said.

Also, the flu spreads quickly around workplaces, with employees in relatively close contact with people who are not feeling well, said Arnold S. Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health.

While Monto said little is known about how effective hand washing can be in stopping the flu from spreading, covering coughs and sneezes does help. And there are medications available to prevent or treat influenza other that the flu vaccine, Monto said.

Some local businesses are still trying to find a way to vaccinate their workers who need it most.

Johns Hopkins University is seeking vaccine supplies but said until it finds them, workers who don't have contact with hospital patients won't be able to get the vaccine as they have in previous years.

And Johns Hopkins Hospital said the national shortage would "significantly affect" its supply of the vaccine. The hospital said its priority would be to vaccinate health care workers with direct patient contact or clinical lab workers who are at risk of being exposed to the flu. The vaccine will be offered to other health care workers as it becomes available, the hospital said.

"Right now, with this situation, most ... companies that we're aware of, they're not going to be able to get the vaccine," said Kathleen Strukoff, a vice president at Aon Consulting, an employee benefits and human resources consulting firm.

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