Flu season and Superstorm Sandy – Causal Relationship?

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Causal Relationship between Flu season and Superstorm Sandy Unlikely

Don Donahue

Analysis by Donald. A. Donahue, Jr., DHEd, MBA, FACHE, Firestorm Expert Council Member

Summary: Michael Olesen, Safety Officer, MN-1 DMAT
Instructional Faculty for St. Catherine University wrote on the possible hypothesis regarding the influenza season this year [season 2012-2013], particularly what would account for the number of cases and its early start. He discusses that we can tie some of the impact of influenza this year [2012-2013] to Hurricane Sandy. He started thinking about this during a meeting with his MN1-DMAT [Minnesota-1, Disaster Medical Assistance Team]. It was triggered by a comment about an outbreak of norovirus at the medical shelter that his team was staffing.

Analysis: Absent tracking of early clusters of influenza cases in the Hurricane Sandy shelter populations, it is unlikely that a causal relationship can be established for this year’s early flu season.  The hardest hit areas of the Jersey Shore, the Rockaways, lower Manhattan, and Long Island are densely populated and have a sizable percentage of residents who regularly commute.  One might postulate, therefore, that this year’s early emergence of influenza would have taken hold irrespective of Sandy’s impact.

This does not mean, however, that there is not a profound lesson here.  Despite years of promotion and decades of safety and efficacy data, a shockingly small percentage of the population seeks flu shots.  A little more than a third of Americans are immunized against influenza.  Vaccination rates among healthcare workers are roughly twice that, but far below the CDC recommended goal of 90 percent.  Considered from a different perspective, when you meet a first responder, healthcare worker, or other public servant there is a 50/50 chance this individual is not immunized.  The flu is communicable before symptoms emerge (and in some cases symptoms never appear).  It is more likely the early and rapid spread of influenza this year is a result of lack of prevention.

This leads back to the core recommendations for avoiding seasonal flu – timely immunization, frequent hand washing, cough etiquette, self-quarantine (stay home when you are ill), and proper diet and exercise.  This is not simply a matter of passing inconvenience.  Lost productivity, cost of treatment (as much as $10.5 billion this year), and the potential for deadly consequences from flu and flu-related illness (as many as 49,000 in some years) are matters of individual, corporate, and national concern.  Why, then, would anyone opt to accept an easily preventable risk?

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