Two dozen Arkansas residents died from the flu last week, bringing the total number of flu deaths this season to 94. According to state health officials the number could reach as high as 270 before spring, based on previous outbreaks
The length and severity of this year’s flu season shows a major increase compared to previous years. According to Dr. John Brineman from Blue Cross Blue Shield, about two-thirds of those who died from flu this season were unvaccinated.
“Flu rates vary as a function of vaccination rates, how effective the vaccine is, and the underlying health of the individual,” he says. “Flu death rates vary dependent on that last variable and age.”
But what about the third that did get vaccinated? And what about the small but still significant percentage of the population who may not be able to safely receive vaccines?
Vaccination rates are just one of multiple factors that have an effect on flu transmission rates. However, it isn’t always enough to just get vaccinated. Sometimes people will just come down with the flu—but how do we prevent spreading it to vulnerable members of the population?
“Infants and older folks have higher death rates,” explains Dr. Brineman.
Medical professionals, like Brineman, usually recommend staying home from work or school when experiencing even mild flu symptoms.
That sounds simple enough, but for many individuals, taking a sick day is just not possible. Max Oliver is a former Sam’s Club employee who recalls how difficult it was to take off work because of illness.
“As far as I remember, if you were going to call in sick, you were supposed to know 24 hours in advance if possible,” says Oliver. “You’re allowed 3 absences–and I think two tardies counted as an absence—and then you get written up.”
By the time individuals start experiencing the first symptoms of the flu, the virus is already transmittable. In Max’s case, if he started experiencing symptoms on a work day, he would have to show up anyway to avoid disciplinary action.
Only 34 percent of low-income, part-time, and service industry workers receive paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But on top that, many of these jobs also have policies in place that can penalize employees for refusing to go to work sick.
Anna Zolten is currently an employee at Aristotle, Inc., a marketing agency. Prior to this job, Zolten only worked restaurant jobs, where she was heavily pressured to come to work sick.
“Sometimes I would be responsible for calling my coworkers to replace me during a shift, putting pressure on me as if I can’t take off if I don’t find a replacement,” says Zolten. “I worked a few times when I shouldn’t because my bosses told me I’d be fired if I didn’t show up.”
At her higher-paying salary job, Zolten receives paid time off that she can use for vacations or sick days.
“Now, I feel easily able to take off when I’m physically sick and can actually take care of myself instead of putting my livelihood before my wellbeing,” she says.
According to a survey by the Center for Research and Public Policy (CRPP), more than half of food industry employees go to work sick. Forty-five percent of those surveyed said that they go to work sick because they can’t afford to lose the money. These fields carry a high transmission risk because employees must handle food and drink and communicate with large numbers of people.
As a result of progressive labor movements, several cities have enacted ordinances mandating paid sick leave. A paper by Stefan Pichler and Nicholas Ziebarth published by the German Institute for Economic Research indicates that flu infection rates declined in some localities by as much as 20 percent after sick leave ordinance laws were passed. For states with high flu death rates, such as Arkansas, that could mean lives saved.
However, Arkansans shouldn’t expect sick leave ordinances any time soon. In March 2017, governor Asa Hutchinson signed SB 668, a preemptive law that prohibits local governments from requiring employers to provide more benefits than the state law requires. Essentially, the law prevents local governments from requiring businesses to offer anything more than the state standard, including mandatory sick leave.
Flu rates are soaring all over the United States right now, but especially in the southern U.S, where some of the nation’s poorest states are located, according to CNN. If the correlation between mandatory sick leave laws and flu infection rates are as strong as Pichler and Ziebarth’s paper, then Arkansans shouldn’t expect the severity of flu seasons to significantly decrease any time soon.