So far, New Jersey has been lucky — and the Red Cross wants to keep it that way. There have only been 19 reported deaths from the H1N1 virus — a.k.a. the swine flu — in New Jersey since it first appeared last spring, and New Jersey is one of only three states in which the outbreak level is still considered regional, rather than widespread, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But is there any way to ensure that the H1N1 outbreak will stay minor in our state? Kathleen Pearson, director of health and safety services for the Red Cross of Central Jersey, will talk about how businesses can prepare for an H1N1 outbreak at the next meeting of the Human Resources Management Association on Monday, November 9, at 5:30 p.m. at the Princeton Hyatt Regency. For more information contact the association at HRMA-NJ.org.
Pearson will also speak at a second meeting, a “lunch and learn” sponsored by Mercadien Group at its office at 3625 Quakerbridge Road on Wednesday, November 18 at 8:30 a.m. Register at www.mercadien.com. Both talks are free.
The best protection against the virus is to know what to expect and to be prepared. While people are particularly focused on H1N1 right now, many of the preparations she suggests are also appropriate for any type of flu outbreak.
“The flu is highly contagious and can quickly cripple 30 to 50 percent of any work force,” says Pearson.
Pearson became active with the American Red Cross in 1980, when she began as a volunteer lifeguard at the age of 15. After rescuing a young girl, knocked unconscious and floating at the bottom of the pool, she knew that helping and saving others was her calling.
By 1982 she was a certified health and safety services instructor and advanced to health and safety specialist in 1988. She holds a masters in education from Rider and a bachelors in computer programming from Kean University.
During her 29 years with the Red Cross, Pearson has played a key role educating the public with life saving skills like CPR, first aid, and learn-to-swim programs. She has also put these skills to use personally, resulting in 48 saves during her career.
Be prepared. Preparation for the H1N1 virus is important not just for employers and managers, but for individual employees. “Employers should know what to expect, understand the steps they can take to prevent the spread of H1N1, and be prepared to answer the questions their employees may ask,” she says.
Employees can get prepared by understanding their companies’ sick leave policies. They should also be prepared to take their own, personal steps not only to prevent the spread of the disease in the office, but also to educate other employees.
“Don’t just leave it up to your employer, or to someone else,” Pearson adds. “Each person should take responsibility.”
Stay home if you’re sick. “We cannot tell employers what their sick leave policies should be, but we do hope that they understand that if employees who are ill stay home, they are less likely to infect others,” she says.
Because the virus seems to particularly affect younger people (the largest population affected is ages 5-24 with the second largest ages 0-5) it is likely that employees might need to stay home to care for a sick child. “We ask that employers understand that their employees might need to stay home to act as a caregiver even if they, themselves, are not ill,” says Pearson.
There are other easy and inexpensive things that employers can do. One of the best is providing extra tissues and anti-bacterial soap throughout the workplace, making it easy for employees to use them often.
Individuals might also want to bring in their own tissues and keep a small bottle of antibacterial wipes or handwash in their desk or office. “Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Bring your own supplies and offer them to others in your office,” she says.
National emergency. President Obama has declared H1N1 a national emergency. The declaration is “a formality,” according to White House officials, and does not mean that the virus has become more deadly or dangerous.
“The declaration is really designed to help hospitals and healthcare agencies more rapidly prepare,” explains Pearson. It removes legal barriers that might slow a rapid response to the illness.
Business toolkit. The American Red Cross has designed a new toolkit for businesses and organizations that want to prepare their staffs for a flu epidemic. The kit contains everything needed to set up and deliver a 90-minute presentation at worksites or community organizations, and includes a printed guide for presentation leaders, a DVD, and a CD-ROM of instructional tools and resources for employers, planners, and employees.
The price for the toolkit is $19.95. In addition, Pearson or other Red Cross staff are also available to speak to organizations and groups about H1N1 preparation. Toolkits may be ordered or presentations arranged by contacting the Red Cross at 609-951-2133, or through www.njredcross.org.
The best news about H1N1 may be that the easiest ways to fight it are simple and inexpensive — covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, washing hands frequently, and staying home if you are sick.
“When this is all over we want to be able to look back and see that New Jersey continued to have one of the lowest rates of infection in the country because each of us took simple precautions,” says Pearson.