The flu season in Canada, typically, begins in November and lasts until March. It peaks between the winter months of December and February.
Health and safety precautions are always essential to prevent flu transmission in the workplace. This flu season, however, extra caution is advised. Not just because once again it overlaps with the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because the lockdowns that kept flu cases low last year have now been lifted.
Is it COVID-19 or Flu?
Flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by an influenza A or B virus. COVID-19 is also a highly infectious respiratory illness caused by a new strain of the coronavirus not previously identified in humans.
Both illnesses have several symptoms in common, such as fever, cough, chills, fatigue, sore throat, muscle pain and body aches. COVID-19 may also cause loss of taste and smell. Both are transmitted through respiratory droplets produced while coughing or sneezing and/or through contaminated surfaces.
Though most people recover from the flu within a week or two, like COVID-19, it can cause life-threatening complications in those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems.
Due to the similarity of symptoms, it is difficult to tell the two illnesses apart without testing. Fortunately, like COVID-19, there is a vaccine available for flu as well.
What steps should I take to prevent an influenza outbreak in my workplace?
The safety measures to prevent spread of both viruses are the same: social distancing, hand hygiene, wearing a mask and staying home when sick. If the COVID-19 health and safety protocols are already in place in your workplace, they will also reduce the risk of an influenza outbreak.
Here are some tips to prevent influenza spread in your workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Advise your employees to get a flu shot
Encourage your staff to get vaccinated against influenza. You could offer your employees time off to go get vaccinated or set up a flu vaccine clinic at your workplace. A flu shot takes two weeks to take effect and should be taken as soon as possible.
Though the flu shot may not be a 100% effective, it will help make the flu symptoms less severe in case one gets sick. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization advises (NACI) that everybody 6 months of age and older without contraindications should get the flu shot every year.
Review sick leave policies
Advise your staff to use their sick leave and stay at home in case they experience flu-like symptoms. You may want to offer extra sick leave to your employees or allow them to combine it with vacation leave to be able to get enough rest and recover fully before returning to work.
Have a daily screening procedure in place
COVID-19, the flu and common cold have several symptoms in common and it is impossible to tell them apart without testing. Employers must have a screening protocol in place to prevent symptomatic employees from coming in to work. It is best that employees experiencing related symptoms be asked to go home and self-isolate to prevent an outbreak in the workplace.
Screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms is a legal requirement in Ontario workplaces.
Rapid testing is another helpful screening tool, but it must be used with other infection prevention and control measures.
The federal and some provincial governments are offering free rapid tests to eligible businesses and organizations. You can learn more about the provincial government rapid testing programs here: Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia.
Ensure health and safety measures are strictly observed in your workplace
Educate your staff about the similarities between flu and COVID-19, how-to self-monitor, and the precautions they should follow. Address any misinformation or hesitancy with facts from credible Public Health sources.
Make sure health and safety procedures, especially those related to physical distancing, masking, respiratory etiquette (coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into their elbow), hand hygiene, and cleaning and disinfection are in place and being diligently followed in your workplace.
Have a response protocol ready for positive cases
If a worker experiences flu-like symptoms while at work, they should know that they must immediately isolate and go home. Have a response protocol ready in case an employee at work experiences flu or COVID-19 symptoms.
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