Flu-Related Deaths on the Rise

Frigid weather across the United States and low effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine have been blamed for a jump in the number of flu cases being reported across the country. Epidemiologists in 36 states so far have reported widespread influenza activity to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those states, 21 reported a high number of cases.

Worldwide, the estimated number of fatalities caused by seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses is also higher than expected, according to the CDC. The agency released a new study in December 2017 with statistics indicating that between 291,000 and 646,000 people die from influenza every year, an increase from the previous estimate of 250,000 to 500,000. The estimates were drawn from a collaborative multinational survey conducted by the CDC and its global health partners.

“These findings remind us of the seriousness of flu and that flu prevention should really be a global priority,” said Joe Bresee, M.D., associate director for global health in CDC’s Influenza Division and a study co-author.

The study, which appeared in The Lancet, excluded data related to pandemics, indicated that poorer nations and older adults are especially at risk. It explained:

People age 75 years and older and people living in sub-Saharan African countries experienced the highest rates of flu-associated respiratory deaths. Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asian countries had slightly lower but still high rates of flu-associated respiratory deaths.

One cause for the rise could be that few developing countries have seasonal flu vaccination programs or the capacity to produce and distribute seasonal or pandemic vaccines.

The information was released following the CDC’s National Influenza Vaccination Week, which was held in early December 2017. That also marked what is typically considered the start of the season which continues through February in the U.S., although activity can last as late as May. Flu activity is expected to increase this month, the CDC warned back in December, and the freezing conditions from last week’s “bomb cyclone” may contribute to fully realizing that prediction.

People at high risk include:

  • Pregnant women.
  • Children younger than 5 years old, but especially children younger than 2 years old.
  • People 65 years of age and older.
  • People of any age who have certain medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) suggests that employers use this critical time to promote policies and procedures to protect their employees from communicable diseases like influenza, and reinforce that the risks may be greater for certain workers. According to SHRM:

Employers must be open to discuss employee concerns and listen to their ideas and suggestions for ways to help them stay healthy. Employers can encourage employees who are at high risk to talk with their health care provider to determine what, if any, additional measures they should consider to keep themselves healthy and safe at work. Employers should strongly consider doctor’s accommodation requests for high-risk workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) web site has a fact sheet and guidelines for companies to follow with regard to the flu and pandemics. Additionally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a page with tips for employers hoping to curb seasonal flu outbreaks in their workplaces and among employees. NIOSH’s suggestions include:

Safe Driving in the Winter ‘Weather Bomb’

The much publicized Weather Bomb, AKA Bomb Cyclone is here in full force. As the storm travels north, much of the northeast is experiencing blinding snowstorms and fierce winds, and states of emergency have been declared in five states. Schools and airports are closed and warnings are in effect for workers to stay home and keep off the roads. Some people must get out and drive, however, and so whether making deliveries, heading to or from work, or running necessary errands, drivers and asked to use heightened caution.

AAA recommends a number of precautions, including this basic tip: Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly when accelerating is the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids, AAA said, cautioning that it takes time to slow down for a stoplight as it takes longer to slow down on icy roads.

From Rear View Safety:
QBE notes that because any hazards are magnified with winter driving conditions, all distractions should be avoided. Check out these tips for safe driving and emergency measures.

QBE’s tips for safe winter driving:

  • Avoid driving while fatigued. It’s important to get the proper amount of rest before taking on winter weather driving to reduce risks.
  • Never run a vehicle in an enclosed area, such as a garage, even if it’s just until it “warms up.”
  • Make certain your tires are in good condition and properly inflated.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full at all times and full if severe winter weather is possible.
  • If possible, avoid using the car’s parking brake in cold, rainy or snowy weather.
  • Do not use your cruise control when driving on any slippery surface (wet, ice, sand).
  • Always look and steer in the direction you want to go to ensure safe travels and avoid possible hazards.
  • Use your seat belt every time you get into your vehicle.
  • Watch weather reports prior to a long-distance drive or before driving in isolated areas. Delay any trip when bad weather is expected. If you must travel, let others know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.
  • Have regular vehicle inspections conducted to ensure you vehicle is in peak operating condition.

If you are snowbound:

  • Make sure you have appropriate phone numbers in your cell phone in case emergency phone calls are needed.
  • Stay with your vehicle. The car will provide temporary shelter and make it easier for rescuers to locate you.
  • Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna or place a cloth at the top of a rolled up window to signal distress.
  • At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you.
  • Run the engine and heater just long enough to remove the chill to conserve gasoline.
  • Don’t try to walk in a severe snow storm. It is easy to lose sight of your vehicle and become lost in blowing snow.
  • Don’t over exert yourself if you try to push or dig your vehicle out of the snow.
  • Make sure the exhaust pipe isn’t clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust could cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment with the engine running.

Get Ready for the ‘Weather Bomb’

In case you need another reason to dread getting to work this first week of 2018, several weather authorities are warning of a major storm that could affect a majority of the United States with freezing conditions. Storm advisories are being issued from New England states to southeastern winter getaways. Residents of South Carolina, Georgia and even northern Florida should be thinking about stocking up on ground salt, thermal pants and hand warmers.

Nancy Egan, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America’s (PCI) regional manager warned: “A dangerous combination of snow, sleet and freezing rain is on the horizon for the Southeast. Weather like this can cause auto accidents, and property damage, and leave thousands without power. Driving in these treacherous conditions can be tricky, so if you do venture out, make sure your vehicle has a winter storm kit in case you have an accident or get stuck and have to wait for help.”

PCI suggests that winter storm kits include a windshield scraper and small broom; flashlight with extra batteries; road salt, sand or cat litter for traction; booster cables; emergency flares and reflectors; snack food; blankets and a first aid kit.

These warnings are inspired by speculation that intensifying winds and cold will bring about a phenomenon known as “bombogenesis” from Thursday to Friday. In an online primer, Mashable delved into the relevant information that organizations need to know about the “weather bomb” or “bomb cyclone.”

[Bombogenesis] refers to a low pressure area whose minimum central air pressure plummets by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. By feasting off of intense atmospheric disturbances as well as differences in air masses and ocean temperatures, including the moisture rich Gulf Stream waters, the upcoming tempest is projected to exceed that intensification rate by several more millibars in 24 hours. This intensification rate, if it comes to pass, would be astonishing.

The potential impact of the upcoming storm could equal that of a Category 3 hurricane, the same strength Hurricane Sandy reached at its peak in 2012. With this in mind, companies located anywhere along the projected path should be heeding the warnings and preparing.

This follows a cold snap that has so far killed at least 11 people in cold-related deaths in the U.S. since Tuesday morning, CNN reported. Some of the victims were located in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Missouri and Texas.

The Southeast has a history of being especially vulnerable to cold-weather conditions. On Jan. 29, 2014, the greater-Atlanta area was rendered nearly unnavigable due to about two inches of snow and ice. Although Georgia is the home of the Weather Channel, state officials failed to act on warnings of the precipitation and freezing conditions, and closed all schools mid-day—about the same time that businesses shuttered for the day. Between parents who were on the road to pick up their children and adults leaving their workplaces due to early closings, millions of cars ended up on roadways, causing a gridlock that prevented salt trucks from safely getting to and from storage areas.

The consequences were unprecedented for the area. Although no fatalities were recorded, the Peach State experienced thousands of traffic accidents, closures and even automobile abandonments on interstate highways.

To prevent such a disaster from reoccurring, Georgia’s Department of Transportation announced via Twitter this week that it has mobilized 13 trucks loaded with salt and gravel in anticipation of the storm. While no announcements have been distributed on the Florida Department of Transportation’s site, FloridaDisaster.org is keeping its visitors updated with news of “below average temperatures.” South Carolina has been posting updates on its DOT site, and reminding motorists to use particular caution and to “watch for slow moving SCDOT equipment applying deicing materials.”

Latest Amtrak Derailment Could Have Been Prevented

An Amtrak train derailment near Tacoma, Washington on Dec. 18 that killed three passengers and injured about 100 was the result of excessive speed in a steep curve, and could have been prevented with automatic braking technology, according to experts.

Amtrak Train No. 501, on its inaugural run, was traveling 80 miles per hour in an area limited to 30 miles per hour when it derailed on an overpass, sending the train’s 12 coaches and one of its two engines careening onto the highway below.

As previously reported in Risk Management, a similar derailment in Philadelphia on May 12, 2015 that killed eight, was also blamed on excessive speed and could have been avoided if a technology, called “positive train control” (PTC), had been in place.

PTC is designed to eliminate human error by using four components: GPS satellite data, onboard locomotive equipment, the dispatching office and wayside interface units. The system communicates with the train’s onboard computer, allowing it to audibly warn the engineer and display the train’s safe braking distance based on its speed, length, width and weight, as well as the grade and curvature of the track, according to railroad operator Metrolink. If the engineer does not respond to the warning, the onboard computer will activate the brakes and safely stop the train.

In the aftermath of a 2008 collision in Chatsworth, California, when 25 passengers were killed, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It required each Class 1 rail carrier and each provider of regularly-scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service to implement a PTC system by Dec. 31, 2015. Because of the high costs—implementation is estimated to cost $75 million for commuter trains—and complexity of the system, however, the requirement was extended three years. Railroads are now mandated by federal law to have a system in place by the end of 2018.