How the “Tripledemic” is Making this Flu Season One of the Most Serious We’ve Seen

Diagnosis and treatment can go a long way. Because the seasonal flu shares so many of the same symptoms as other respiratory illnesses, it is very… Trista - December 7, 2022
Testing and treatment go hand in hand to avert severe flu cases. Source: WNEP

Diagnosis and treatment can go a long way.

Because the seasonal flu shares so many of the same symptoms as other respiratory illnesses, it is very hard to distinguish it from a field of other diseases. This is even more true as we approach a flu season whose severity health experts aren’t just bracing for but are already declaring as one of the worst in recent years. Occurring side by side with Covid-19, the common cold, pneumonia, and RSV, the flu can be difficult to diagnose, as all these diseases have symptoms that overlap. If you experience fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, pains, or fatigue, chances are you may have the flu, but without seeing a doctor or getting tested, you can’t know for sure if that’s what it is or something else.

Influenza has become such a common part of the winter season. We normally don’t raise alarm bells anymore when we fall victim to this virus. In most cases, coming down with the flu is an uncomplicated affair. You can resolve it with a healthy amount of rest, plenty of fluids, and appropriate medication to ease symptoms. As with most viral illnesses, the flu will run its course within one to two weeks. Then, the patient fully recovers. But this is not always the case. If a bout of flu becomes bad enough to require medical attention, antiviral medications are available to combat the worst of the disease. These medications are most effective when taken within two days of experiencing symptoms. They help prevent serious complications while shortening your sick time by 1 to 2 days.

Americans are encouraged to get their flu shot ahead of the flu season. Source: Bayshore Healthcare

Vaccination is the best line of defense.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or so the saying goes, at least. If there ever was a more effective way of thwarting a potentially disastrous flu season, it’s through vaccinations. The flu vaccine, in particular, has been around for nearly a century. It first appeared for widespread use in 1945. That was a few years after Thomas Francis and Jonas Salk at the University of Michigan developed it. It was initially tested for safety and efficacy within the military. But then the general public received it. The vaccine has evolved since then to keep up with the similarly growing strains of influenza. That explains why people are encouraged to get a flu shot every year instead of just one shot intended for lifetime protection.

Throughout history, as flu pandemics rose to peaks of destruction before waning into oblivion, scientists observed that apart from the two main strains of influenza, A and B, other sub-variants seemed to branch off and circulate. In turn, evading the protection of current vaccines and prompts health organizations worldwide to monitor these viruses year-round. They work with scientists to stay ahead of these strains with increasingly more sophisticated vaccines. This year, because of the added burden of a fast-evolving and highly transmissible Sars-Cov2 virus, Federal health officials are encouraging everyone to get their flu shot early before flu season comes in full swing. Otherwise, the public would constantly deal with a barrage of viruses. Health officials hope vaccinations will hold the line and help nip a wave of infections in the bud.

Multiple methods of prevention work best when taken together. Source: Blue Cross

Swiss cheese, anyone?

The success of infection prevention cannot rely on only one method of suppression. Why? Because not one way is perfect by itself. There will always be “holes” in each approach, which is why most virologists agree that to prevent the worst outcomes of any viral illness, a layered approach is best. This is where the Swiss Cheese model of pandemic defense comes into play. This model first accepts the imperfection of every prevention approach available. However, they argue that if all these models are taken together, or “layered,” then the strengths of one will be able to cover up the “holes” of the others, creating an effective way of preventing the spread of viral illnesses such as the flu.

So, what are these layers? For a disease that is spread primarily through respiratory droplets and touching infected surfaces, doctors recommend the following. First, physical distancing. Next, avoiding contact with others if you are sick. Wear a mask, practice hand hygiene and cough etiquette. Do not touch your face. Also, avoid crowded spaces. Instead, have ventilation and air filtration. Quarantine and isolation are important. Finally, mass vaccinations. Each layer is crucial in building a fortress of protection, and the more layers in this protective mesh, the thicker and more effective the wall we make becomes. However, while some layers are easily adopted, some, which fall in the realm of personal choice, can become problematic. This happens when a significant percentage of the population refuses to cooperate, leaving many vulnerable to the “holes” that could lead to a particularly disastrous flu season.

School-aged kids spread the flu virus easily. Source: Healthline

Schools are getting hit hard by the flu.

How bad a particular flu season is can be measured by how many people fall ill. Plus, how sick they become. This is nowhere near as evident as in schools, where kids are confined indoors for hours at a time and are, therefore, likely vectors of the disease. According to health officials, this particular flu season looks like it’s already hitting schools early and hitting them hard. Several school districts in California and Virginia raising concerns over likely flu outbreaks. In San Diego, Patrick Henry High School had 1,100 absences out of 2,600 students since the beginning of October. Another school, Del Norte High, had an estimated 884 absences out of 2,517 students.

The same is happening on the opposite side of the US. One Virginia school reported half their total enrollment – about 1,000 students – missing school due to flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms. It prompted the local health department to investigate and figure out a way to mitigate the situation before it worsens. The flu has been around long enough for schools to at least have protocols in place. The fact that some schools are reporting significant absences so early into the season is already setting off alarm bells, pushing parents, educators, and health officials to review and enforce necessary prevention measures. Those include vaccination, hygiene, and procedures for separating symptomatic individuals to prevent the virus from spreading within the community.

Returning to the office could escalate the severity of this flu season. Source: Healthline

Returning to the office will make this flu season worse.

Most companies are finally walking back Covid work-from-home policies and slowly shifting employees back into physical offices. Health officials predict that the flu virus will also return to the workplace, which might be worse than the cold workers are used to catching in the office pre-pandemic. For all the same reasons that schools are likely incubators of the flu, the workplace is no different, with the added complication of relaxed health and safety protocols, such as the absence of masking and poor vaccination uptake, adding to the recipe for a catastrophic flu season in the making.

Many workers face challenging positions amid a flu season bound to create disruptions. The resurgence of other viruses that have lain dormant as Sars-Cov 2 went on a 2-year rampage around the world is wreaking havoc in the healthcare system. Not only do families and individuals have to combat the flu. They also have to watch out for Covid, RSV, the common cold, pneumonia, and other illnesses that share similarities with influenza, making it difficult to spot and treat accordingly. Sometimes, these illnesses seem to come one after the other without so much as a break in between. It leads to absences, drops in productivity, and problems with childcare for workers with family members who are also sick.

Many organizations are ordering workers to return to the office. Source: The Telegraph UK

Working from home is no longer an option.

An early uptick in the number of flu cases has many workers feeling particularly vulnerable. Why? Because they try to keep themselves safe from contracting a viral illness amid the pressure of finally returning to the office. However, the chances of picking up a bug have skyrocketed in recent weeks. According to a Gartner survey of 240 HR leaders, 36% of have called workers back to the office at least three days a week beginning September. That figure is up 25% from the previous month. Caroline Walsh, a Gartner VP, says this continues to be the trend despite their data not showing remote work harming performance or culture.

Fears of a looming recession may also compound the pressure to return to the office. That is especially true amid high inflation and a volatile stock market. Amid such a bleak economic backdrop, workers may feel like they have no choice but to come to work sick or risk losing their jobs as companies push for greater productivity to ride out an unstable market through to the end of the year. These circumstances look to erase the gains made in the workplace since the pandemic rewrote the rules for calling in sick. While Covid 19 finally made it okay to prioritize health over productivity, returning to pre-pandemic practices doesn’t mean we have to go back to the misguided heroics of fighting through sickness to work. To prevent this flu season from being one of the worst in recent years, workers’ health should be the priority.

Coming to work sick could exacerbate an already lousy flu season. Source: BBC

Working while sick shouldn’t be the norm!

For one, working while sick is actually counterproductive. If showing up to work means the job assigned to you gets done, being present at the office at a reduced capacity doesn’t guarantee that the work is up to standard. You won’t have to do it again. Substandard work equals less productivity. Furthermore, physical presence does not always mean productivity. Not only does sickness affect levels of quality, but it also lengthens recovery time, keeping workers from coming back healthy in as little time as possible. If bosses force employees to fight through their sickness, the time they could’ve used to rest and recover exacerbates their illness even more.

Not to mention that showing up to work at a time when flu cases are at an all-time high. A long list of viral illnesses is circulating in the environment is, at best irresponsible and, at worst, downright selfish, with little regard for the welfare of others. We never know what our colleagues are going through health wise. You don’t know if they or their loved ones are immunocompromised. Plus, you don’t know if they go home to families who could be particularly vulnerable to diseases. By exposing ourselves to the workplace in such a condition, we are putting more than our coworkers at risk. Plus, we are putting the lives of their loved ones on the line.

Managers should encourage paid time off amid a severe flu season. Source: Business News Daily

Please, let workers use their PTOs.

Leaders also have a vital role in ensuring that their workforce remains healthy and productive. Providing a meaningful amount of paid sick leave should be a top priority. That goes double as we enter an awful flu season. The potential for contracting illnesses in the workplace or bringing viruses in and spreading them around is at an all-time high. However, paid time off is considered a luxury. In fact, 1 in 5 employees don’t have access to it. That is especially true for those considered low-wage workers. For those who do have this benefit, managers should encourage their subordinates to use those PTOs. Knowing that their managers are supportive of their health allows workers to focus on recovery without fear of losing their jobs due to absences.

Another way managers can take the lead in preventing significant loss in productivity due to illness is to take time off themselves. As leaders, they set the expectations for good self-care in the workplace. They must show workers that you aren’t invincible yourself. Plus, you should know when to pull back will permit everyone else to do the same. Good managers know that productivity is all about keeping workers at peak performance. If that means allowing everyone, including themselves, to take a day or two off to recover, everyone in the office will be all the better.

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