When Is It Safe To Go Back To Work After The Flu?

Host Michel Martin isn't the only person who's been "under the weather" lately. She chats with NPR science correspondent Rob Stein about the nation-wide flu outbreak.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk about how some Native American tribes are marking next week's inauguration. It's part party and part diplomacy. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, if you tuned in last week, you might have heard something like this more than once.

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, sitting in for Michel Martin, who's under the weather. Under the weather. Under the weather. Under the weather. Under the weather.

MARTIN: And, if you've been listening this week, maybe I should have started by apologizing for how I sound, which is, as one of my friends kindly told me, like death warmed over. To be fair, I'm not the only one who might - should have stayed home a little longer.

The Centers for Disease Control say the flu is hitting early this season and it is already widespread. Lots of emergency rooms and doctors' offices are jammed with flu patients. Your office might be, as well, unless they're home, which might be for the best.

So, joining us to tell us more about why this is happening and what, if anything, we can do about it is Rob Stein. He's a health correspondent for NPR and he's here with us in our studio not sitting too close to me, I should mention.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, sure. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Why is it so bad? Or is it really this bad? Is it as bad as it seems?

STEIN: Yeah. What's happening this year is that the flu season got off to a really early start. It started about a month earlier than it usually does, and so we're seeing a lot more flu in a lot more places a lot sooner than we ordinarily would. That's one thing.

And the second thing that's happening is the main strain that's circulating is called an H3N2 strain and, in past years, that's been a particularly nasty strain. It's made a lot more people sick. It's caused a lot more deaths and that's the main strain that's circulating, so there's a lot of concern that this could be a really nasty, more severe year than typical.

MARTIN: Now, I don't want to make this all about me, but I did get my flu shot. I had everybody in my household get their flu shot and we still got it. Why is that? And is that typical?

STEIN: Right. Yeah. You know, the flu vaccine is still the best way people can protect themselves from the flu, but it's not, you know, 100 percent effective. It's not perfect and it varies from year to year, depending on which strains are circulating and how well-matched they are to the vaccine strains.

This year, the first data that came out about the vaccine's effectiveness last week and it looks to be about 62 percent effective, which is typical for a flu vaccine, so you know, it's a good way to protect yourself, but still, lots of people who get the vaccine still can get sick.

MARTIN: How widespread is what we're talking about here?

STEIN: You know, the flu is pretty much everywhere in this country right now. According to the latest data from the CDC, it's considered widespread in 47 states, but it's really everywhere and there are reports all over the country of lots of people getting sick, lots of ERs getting slammed, doctors' offices overwhelmed with patients. So, it's clear there's a lot of flu out there right now.

MARTIN: Is this a good time to put in for that remote broadcast from Hawaii?

STEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is that a good...

STEIN: Well...

MARTIN: Or are they sick, too?

STEIN: Yeah. No. It is really everywhere and no part of the country is immune. So there's no escape, I'm sorry to say. And the other thing that's going on is that the flu isn't the only thing out there. There's lots of other infectious diseases that are circulating. You know, your typical wintertime things are these viruses called rhinoviruses and adenoviruses, which cause the common cold. There's another respiratory virus called RSV that's circulating and there's also a norovirus, which is this really nasty virus that causes all kinds of stomach problems.

MARTIN: Yeah. A gastrointestinal thing, which we - let's not talk about it. Let's just not even talk about it.

STEIN: Yeah. We won't go into details about it. We know what we're talking about.

MARTIN: Let's not even go into details about that. But is it your perception that the typical common colds that - you mentioned that it's not just the flu that's out there now, that there are other viruses out there now. Those seem worse than we typically see.

STEIN: Yeah. It's hard to know, really, if it's worse or not. It's really just that there's so much flu out there and it's happening all at the same time and it's all mixed up that there are so many people sick that it really does create the feeling and I think it's the reality that there are just a lot of people that are sick and you put it all together. The flu, the norovirus which is circulating and these other respiratory viruses and it's clear that there's a lot of people that are not feeling too well these days.

MARTIN: And, if you've already gotten - let's say you've already gotten sick, but you haven't gotten a flu shot. Those are pretty widely available. I mean, it just seems like just every pharmacy I see, even some of the supermarkets' pharmacies - supermarkets are offering them. Should you still get one?

STEIN: Oh, absolutely. People should definitely still get vaccinated because we don't know how long the flu season's going to last this year. It started early, so it could end early, but it could go on for a while and it takes at least a couple of weeks for the protection from the flu shot to kick in, so if you got it today, you'd still be vulnerable to the flu for a couple of weeks. But we still could have plenty of flu out here in a couple of weeks from now.

MARTIN: How long does flu season typically last?

STEIN: Typically, it runs through, like, late winter, early spring. So we're talking like March, you know, around that period of time, but that's the big question that public health officials have right now is, what'll happen? As I said, it started about a month early, so it could end petering out earlier than usual, and it could end up being just, you know, sort of a typical moderate to severe flu season and nothing really all that out of the ordinary. But it could go on through the typical period, through the end of the winter, into the early spring. And if that happens, then it really will end up having been a really bad year.

MARTIN: Are there any other steps that people should be taking to try to keep themselves healthy, keep their families healthy, keep their co-workers healthy? Sorry, everybody. Sorry. Just apologizing in advance, again.

STEIN: Yeah. Really. I mean the main thing people can do is if they get sick they should stay home and, you know, to prevent themselves from spreading it around to other people. And, you know, there's all the usual things you hear doctors recommending. You know, if they're coughing and sneezing, they should cover their mouths and their noses. They should try to cough into their elbow, not into their hands because that can limit how much they spread it around to other people. That sort of thing.

MARTIN: And is there anything else, though - I know you report on this sort of more broadly, that we should be thinking about more broadly as a country around this issue? I mean I think about kind of productivity hit that a lot of companies have taken because so many people have been sick at once, and really making their best effort to kind of manage the workforce. This is a very busy time of year for people in certain professions - people who do taxes, for example, they feel a lot of pressure to come to work, not to mention there's testing, there's all kinds of things going on people feel that they have to do. Are there anything more broadly you think we should be thinking about, very briefly, Rob?

STEIN: Well, you know, it's clear that there are some sort of structural things that really this country needs to pay attention to, like the public health system has really been allowed to deteriorate a lot in the last few years with all these state and local governments making big cuts because of the financial problems that everybody has been having. And there's been also a big push to try to figure out a way to make the flu vaccine better. Right now it's this very antiquated process that involves growing the flu virus in eggs, it takes a really long time because of that. The match between the vaccine and what the strains are actually circulating is not always that great. And they are developing new and better ways to do that. In fact, the first new version of a vaccine just came on the market this year.

MARTIN: Rob Stein is a health correspondent for NPR. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. I think we'll make do with a fist bump this time instead of a hearty hug. What do you think?

STEIN: That sounds good. Stay well.

MARTIN: All right. Thanks so much for joining us.

STEIN: OK. Thank you.

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