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Employers try wide variety of flu-fighting strategies

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While the U.S. government scrambles to offset depleted stocks of flu vaccine, employers forced to cancel their flu vaccination clinics are turning to alternative flu-prevention tactics that go beyond public information campaigns.

The normal 100 million doses of vaccine to the USA were cut nearly in half this month when authorities discovered that vaccine from Chiron, one of only two suppliers, was potentially contaminated. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Tuesday that the government is scouring the world for supplies and that another 2.6 million doses will be available in January.

But with many Americans unlikely to get a shot, employers are mindful of a study by the University of Arizona for Clorox that found that cold and flu viruses can survive on office furniture for up to 72 hours. Some are trying novel approaches to prevent flu:

* SureWest Communications, a telecommunications provider in Roseville, Calif., has ordered five automatic, touchless hand-sanitizer dispensers to put in high-traffic areas such as copy centers and break rooms. ''We've been pretty healthy so far, but we're getting into the flu season now,'' says SureWest's Evan Nussbaum. ''Every little thing we can do helps.''

* At Chicago-based real estate brokerage Baird & Warner, Jim Schiefelbein, a vice president and director of marketing, bought bottles of hand sanitizer for everyone in his department. ''I tell employees to stay home until they feel better,'' Schiefelbein says.

* TW Creative Communications, a Tampa advertising and marketing company, ordered a large supply of green tea extract for the upcoming flu season. It also sent out e-mail on how to stay healthy. ''A healthy employee is a productive employee,'' says CEO Skip Glass, who is offering some tea free and some at a discount.

* Some companies will administer flu tests at on-site health clinics run by Minneapolis-based MinuteClinics. Nasal swabs help determine whether sick employees have the flu, and workers can get antiviral medications to shorten the flu's duration. A flu test is being offered as part of an on-site health care service for employees at the headquarters of Guidant, a maker of medical products, and at Best Buy.

Employers fear the vaccine shortage could mean severe productivity losses: Typically, 60% of companies offer flu vaccines to employers, says the Society for Human Resource Management. This year, most have been canceled.

Other companies are offering immunity boosters such as vitamins to workers or relying on prevention campaigns.

Some hospitals will be giving face masks to flu patients. ComPsych, a Chicago-based employment services provider, administers flu shot programs for companies. But this year, it's counseling companies on tips for prevention: telling clients to cross-train employees so others can cover for sick co-workers; back up files so material is accessible if an employee falls ill; and ensuring all employees have the ability to work from home.

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


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