During COVID-19, employers also have their eyes on flu shots

The 2020 flu season was much milder than in years past, thanks to widespread mask wearing, safety precautions, social distancing, isolation and more necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But this year, as more people get back to socializing, attending events and traveling, and as more workplaces open up–combined with less population-level immunity to the flu–health experts predict a more severe flu season. The expected harsher season–in tandem with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic–is making flu vaccination essential, experts say.

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Just as essential? Employers’ role in encouraging flu and COVID vaccination.

“As the Delta variant continues to spread and more variants potentially emerge, it’s important that employers understand the risk that comes with fighting multiple similar viruses at once–a risk that can be mitigated substantially by receiving both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot,” says Adam Fritz, medical director of workplace pop-ups at Eden Health, a direct-to-employer medical provider.

Related: Want to get workers vaccinated? Try these 6 strategies

With more at stake, a growing number of companies are stepping up by offering on-site clinics for vaccination and encouraging flu shots–while continuing their COVID-19 vaccine efforts.

HRE spoke to Fritz about employers’ rising interest in flu shots, why flu shots–and COVID vaccines–are important and how employers should communicate their importance to employees.

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HRE: We are, of course, still deep in the COVID pandemic, and now entering flu season. What does that mean in regard to the importance of flu shots? And how does it tie into the workplace?

Fritz: Flu vaccinations have always been important. I believe the COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of mitigating communicable diseases in the workplace in a way that may not have been prioritized in the past. Employers have a better understanding of the cascading effects that having someone ill and contagious at work can cause. Flu vaccinations are another step in preventing the spread of disease, lost production and lost revenue.

HRE: You say you’ve seen more interest in pop-up clinics offering flu shots versus this time a year ago. Tell me more about rising interest and the likely reasoning behind it.

Adam Fritz, Eden Health
Adam Fritz, Eden Health

Fritz: Last year at this time, less than 28% of all employers had returned to the workplace, with a significant number of employees across the nation feeling uncomfortable about returning. Now, many employers are increasing their back-to-workplace initiatives while trying to maintain a safe environment. COVID vaccinations, mask-wearing and testing are all common initiatives we have seen in an effort to mitigate risk. This awareness of the risk of communicable diseases has naturally led more employers to consider the benefits of offering flu vaccinations as well. To date, we have had six times the requests for flu vaccination workplace pop-ups we had in 2019 and 2020.

Related: How return-to-work plans are evolving due to the Delta variant

HRE: Do you think employers should be more aggressive about encouraging flu shots this year? If so, how can they do that in tandem with the COVID-19 vaccines, which have presented some polarization in the workplace?

Fritz: Employers have had some difficult challenges in recent months regarding vaccination communication and expectations with their employees. The silver lining is the new openness to conversations regarding vaccinations and their importance to public health and safety. While there are some differences in the effects COVID and influenza have on the population, both are communicable, viral diseases that can be mitigated with proper hygiene and safety measures, including vaccinations. Employers should prioritize the same open conversations with their staff about flu vaccinations as they have with COVID.

HRE: What’s the best way employers can encourage flu shots for their employees? Any tips or best practices?

Fritz: Communication and access are key ingredients for successful vaccination initiatives. Employers should remind their employees of the upcoming flu season, encourage vaccinations and inform them of known options for access to the vaccination. Employers should remember that prioritizing these discussions and efforts not only makes the workplace safer, it instills trust in their employees that they are invested in their health and wellbeing.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.