This winter, local homes and workplaces are under unusually savage assault from flu, pneumonia and other viral supervillains. As of Dec. 30, reported influenza-related deaths in Washington were the second-highest of any flu season this decade.
It seems everybody had at least one family member, friend or coworker laid up at home for the holidays.
The impact on frail people in group settings can be particularly hard. It’s not uncommon for senior living facilities to cope with outbreaks by quarantining residents and distributing germ masks to visitors.
Public health risks are compounded when staff bring bugs to work because they can’t afford to take a sick day.
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With the arrival of 2018, however, there’s reason to believe Washington workplaces will see less of this “tough it out” mentality.
The state’s new sick-and-safe leave law, which went into effect Jan. 1, wasn’t just a decent thing to do for struggling segments of the labor force, such as working-class parents with small children; it may very well foster healthier communities for all of us.
The law requires employers to provide at least 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked, including part-time, temporary and seasonal workers. Tacoma’s had a similar ordinance in place for two years. It’s now been updated to conform with the new state law, which is more generous in terms of total sick leave hours that employees can accrue in a year, as well as how quickly new hires can claim the benefit.
Of course, policies like this are not free; it and other parts of the minimum wage initiative approved by Washington voters in 2016 add to the cost of doing business. Employers are on the hook to subsidize the new benefits, which can lead to cutbacks elsewhere in the operation or higher costs for goods and services.
In their sick-leave interventions, governments have by no means found the perfect formula to balance those interests. Tacoma’s ordinance might have done a reasonably good job, had it been given time to work.
But there’s growing evidence that some minimal level of sick leave can help control the spread of public health threats, such as diseases carried by food workers.
A study published in September by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that foodborne illness rates dropped 22 percent after paid sick leave laws were adopted in Seattle and San Francisco. Earlier research made a connection between paid sick leave and overall better population health, including fewer infectious outbreaks.
The study also determined that 70 percent of foodborne norovirus incidents with an identified source were transmitted by ailing food-industry workers.
Norovirus is one nasty contagion that shouldn’t be taken lightly. On Monday, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said it closed El Toro Mexican Restaurant in Tacoma due to a suspected norovirus outbreak likely transmitted by at least one sick worker.
In 2017, the agency investigated 18 eruptions of norovirus — more than double the number from each of the previous two years — with eight to 100 victims per outbreak.
The year ended with a brutal round of norovirus at Narrows Glen senior living community. At least 28 residents and 11 employees were hit before Christmas, afflicted with telltale symptoms such as cramps, diarrhea and vomiting.
Thankfully, Narrows Glen activated its in-house response plan; it got through the ordeal by limiting contact between residents, disinfecting door knobs, tables and other common surfaces, and taking other measures advised by the health department.
The rest of us can reduce the odds of being miserable or spreading misery during these close-proximity, indoor months of winter by following some simple steps:
Get a flu shot. Wash hands more than you think you need to. Keep your hands away from your mouth. Clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Don’t prepare food for others while you’re sick.
And don’t try to be a hero by going to work when you feel rotten.
Thanks to Washington voters who approved sick-and-safe leave and to business owners paying the cost, staying home and regaining your health has never been easier.