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Vaccine shortage may not hit most workplaces hard

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The flu vaccine shortage might not be as costly as some employers fear.

The majority of employees don't get flu shots even when they're offered free by employers, and many companies already have plans in place to handle worker absences. Recent studies also suggest that employer-provided flu shots aren't always cost effective. While this flu season is expected to take a heavier toll, the economic impact on employers might be limited.

* While most companies have canceled flu vaccinations this year, the majority of employees typically don't get shots even when they're available. When clients offer flu shots, about 5% to 15% of employees get them, according to benefits consulting firm Towers Perrin.

About a fourth of people over 5 months old got flu shots last year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

* Research on the cost-effectiveness of company-provided flu shots is contradictory. A 2000 study on flu shots for employees published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that ''vaccination may not provide overall economic benefits in most years.''

''Employers shouldn't be worried,'' says Alan Spiro, a doctor who leads the national clinical practice of Towers Perrin. ''It's really iffy as to whether there is even a cost benefit to flu shots.''

* Even before this year's shortage, rising health care costs and fickle interest from employees had prompted employers to curb flu vaccination programs. Sixty percent of companies offered vaccination clinics last year, down from 66% in 2000, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

* Many large employers say they are able to cope with an increase in absences related to the flu.

''I'm not overly concerned about this year, in terms of handling this,'' says Nick Jacobs, CEO at Windber Medical Center, a hospital in Windber, Pa. ''We know vaccination is never a guarantee. We have plans to deal with absences.''

Typically, flu-related absences are two to three days. ''It's not like people will be out for weeks and weeks, which is another reason employers aren't alarmed,'' says Kathleen Strukoff, a vice president at human resources consulting firm Aon Consulting.

Many medical experts believe the vaccine shortage will have some impact on employers, especially small companies that are less able to rebound from absences.

Demographics also favor employers: The elderly, who are among those at highest risk of flu complications, are often not in the workforce. The CDC says only about 5% to 20% of the entire U.S. population gets the flu.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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