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Flu shots help protect fragile recovery

U. Earl Dunn

Retailers throughout Northern Nevada both big-box stores and small independents pray for a solid economic shot in the arm this holiday season, one that will carry through into the new year.

For many of them, an actual shot in the arm might be just what the doctor ordered.

As word quickly filtered out last week that the Washoe County Health District reported its first confirmed case of influenza in the Truckee Meadows, health care professionals continued to ramp up efforts to convince people to get their flu shots.

Should the seasonal flu season turn out to be one of those that find scores of school children and adult workers spending time in bed with high fevers, aching muscles, chills and sweats, fatigue and weakness, it could only exacerbate an economy seeking a few nuggets of hope.

That’s among the reasons that health care professionals and business interests in Nevada are needling everyone that will listen to get their flu shots if they have not already done so.

Katie Nannini, statewide director for the Immunize Nevada program, says lost workdays due to the flu can cost employers a lot of money in forced sick leave, doctor visits and lost productivity. Most people who get one of the influenza strains can expect to lose anywhere from three to five days from work. Nationally, the economic burden of illnesses in adults caused by the flu is more than $80 billion annually.

Statistically, each year in the United States, the flu bug knocks out upwards of 10 percent of the adult workforce as the illness is often easily spread in the workplace. Only through immunization, says Nannini, can employers hope to diminish the impact to their business operations.

Nannini coordinates state efforts with those of county health departments and other private and public immunization programs throughout the state and helps plan and build a coalition of partnerships, both public and private, to raise awareness about the importance of decreasing vaccine-preventable diseases in the Silver State.

Why is such a program necessary?

One reason may be that many Americans have become complacent about immunization for infectious diseases. A Harvard University poll in September found that 41 percent of the population says they would not get the flu vaccine for themselves or their children. Another 17 percent, according to the poll, said they were not sure.

“My job is to remind people here in Nevada that we do live in a tourist economy, that parents need to immunize their kids and themselves because influenza can lead to hospitalization and, in more severe cases, even death,” says Nannini. “It isn’t something we can ignore.”

What began in 2007 as a statewide immunization coalition has mushroomed into a more formal program with a missionary zeal aimed at influencing businesses, schools and the general public about the need for immunization. Heidi Hurst is director of the Northern Nevada Immunization Coalition, and as such has been working with various businesses to enlist their help in spreading the word.

“One of our partners has been NV Energy,” says Hurst. “Last year, they helped us identify through outreach expos scores of high-risk customers, those individuals who may have had difficulty keeping their bills current. By identifying such people, we were able to get flu shots for adults and their children, free of charge.

“This year, NV Energy is helping us support area physicians and clinics, especially in the rural areas, by replacing their outdated refrigerators in which they store the vaccine. We are not only able to help them replace old refrigerators, but are doing so with energy-efficient models that also meet the requirements of the Centers for Disease Control,” she said.

The refrigerators are being purchased through a grant awarded by the NV Energy Foundation.

Karl Walquist, a spokesperson for NV Energy, says the foundation provided a $7,000 grant which, when combined with two other donations, helped purchase 10 energy-efficient refrigerators for several clinics.

He says the company has also actively encouraged all its employees to get annual flu shots, which have been provided free to employees and their dependents who are covered by certain medical plans. Some employees were given shots at work, but they also had the option to get reimbursed for shots offered at other locations such as drugstores or grocery stores.

Firms that have been willing to distribute educational materials dealing with the benefits of immunization against the flu include banks and casinos.

“John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks has been a great partner in this effort and has been putting informational material in their employees’ pay envelopes,” Hurst says. “They know that if their employees are healthy, they will see fewer sick days being taken and this impacts their business in a positive way.”

In Washoe County, the coalition began pushing hard in September to get as many teachers and children immunized as possible.

“We are doing about 40 schools with free shots and are currently above the national average in getting kids immunized. The free shots are made possible through various grants. We presently have other grant requests out there and are hopeful some may come through,” says Hurst.

Who writes the grant proposals? “I do,” says Hurst. “I am a one-stop shop. We are always applying for new grant opportunities. When we make the proposals, we talk about the bad economy and the fact many have lost their jobs and, therefore, their health care insurance. We are trying to fill that gap.”

The week of December 5-9 has been designated as National Influenza Vaccination Week, and Hurst says the coalition will be hosting a community flu summit in Fallon.