“Are you exhibiting any flu-like symptoms?” Our primary COVID-19 screening question is about to become a lot more complicated as we enter the annual flu season. We know little at this point about how these viruses will interact, but health officials do know that coinfection is possible.
Until more is uncovered about these potential consequences, it is possible that we will see continued or further restrictions to mitigate the predicted double burden on our healthcare system, availability of personal protective equipment, and potential surge in cases. Employers and HR professionals should be prepared as we head into flu season to answer difficult questions from employees and continue to prioritize health and safety.
Each year, hospitals across Canada experience an average of 12,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths from the seasonal flu, as reported by the Canadian Pharmacists Association. With our healthcare system currently strained to fight COVID-19, this is cause for concern. There is a shortage of testing kits, personal protective equipment, a limited number of seasonal flu vaccines, staff shortages, and delayed response times. As of July, the government of Canada released data that Canada had experienced over 100,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 8,000 deaths. What is more alarming is that a lot of the symptoms for the seasonal flu and COVID-19 overlap. This could cause panic and paranoia in the public, as they will not be able to differentiate between the viruses, resulting in even higher hospital admission rates and more absences from work.
There are some subtle differentiating factors between the seasonal flu and COVID-19. COVID-19 is known to show varying degrees of flu-like symptoms in those infected; however, COVID-19 may present other symptoms like changes to or loss of taste or smell that are not associated with seasonal flu. Another important difference is that the seasonal flu begins to present symptoms within one to four days, whereas COVID-19 symptoms may take two to 14 days to appear. Additionally, COVID-19 has a much longer period when an infected individual is contagious, and it spreads easier and quicker than seasonal flu.
The silver lining is that both viruses spread the same way, so current prevention strategies will help reduce the spread of both diseases. Ultimately, the key to identifying whether someone is infected with seasonal flu or COVID-19 will rely on testing. More details on the differences and similarities will be revealed over time as more is understood about COVID-19.
What does this mean for employers and HR professionals? Well, we certainly aren’t out of the woods just yet. We can expect that some employees will presume any flu-like symptoms are COVID-19 related, while others will minimize the seriousness of the situation and attribute any signs of illness to seasonal flu. This will be a challenge to address, as your business can experience work refusals and staff shortages from one end of the spectrum while the other end will report to work even if they are experiencing symptoms, potentially infecting others. To help prepare for these possibilities, download our FREE Preparing for Flu Season During the COVID-19 Pandemic Guide for suggested actions to address the unique challenges that may arise from this year’s flu season.
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