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Grace Ross: Flu Is Not The Only Thing Making So Many Sick

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


The death of a child, this time because of a flu epidemic in Massachusetts, is another heartbreak, especially on the anniversary of Sandy Hook. There have been 20 flu-related deaths in our Commonwealth so far this season.

I’m bracing myself for when the details and images of this young person finally come out, and we, as a human community, have another reason to grieve.

The unfortunate reality is that it is not just about this flu. Yes, they guess every year about what strains of flu are going to be rampant. They guessed wrong this year, with only a 60% hit rate, but that can happen just out of bad luck. I send my hope out that the folks whose immune systems tend not to be so strong have all gotten flu shots by this point in flu season.

However, it would be dishonest to act as if this was simply bad luck – that there was nothing we could do about it. The flu situation reminds all of us that illness does not know who has health coverage and who doesn’t, who has been naughty or nice. Many illnesses, like the flu, simply jump from one human host to the next, depending on availability. Protecting general health, of all things, is probably more public than many services or resources that our leaders these days may try to privatize.

In fact, the state specifically said that it was privatizing the flu effort. This is actually an expression of cuts at the federal level, and then significant cuts by this governor’s administration to the public health division of our state – 600 million was his proposal. These were treated as not very important.

The state cannot mandate the privatizing of flu response or any public health issue; it’s the private insurance and health networks recognizing that the state has walked away from a traditional public responsibility. It is traditional not because we’re all old fogeys, but because health is a sector that’s critically important to monitor as a public good. Germs, flu, environmental carcinogens exist in the public realm. We haven’t yet convinced them to do what the private market wants them to!

I know I’m sort of making fun, and this is not a funny situation. Nor are the increases in meningitis and numerous treatable illnesses in our state and country. The state walked away from providing flu shots to the tune of less than 50% of previous years. This is unfortunately like the shooting in Newtown, where there was a serious mental health issue that’s now been privatized both in terms of public investment and even in terms of our consciousness of our responsibility as members of the human community. The same is true of flu and meningitis and many easily communicable diseases that have life and death consequences, starting with those who are the most vulnerable in our communities.

The flu also reminds us that it’s not just the budget of the public health department, or how well it’s executed, that impacts our health. Other shortsighted private business decisions have public impact.

A key piece of state legislation has been re-filed again that would have a huge impact on this flu epidemic and many other communicable diseases. This would provide earned sick leave: the idea is that when you’ve worked a certain number of days, put in enough hours, you should earn a certain number of hours of paid sick time from your job. This value of this investment is proven: the companies that provide earned paid sick time have higher productivity, fewer turnover of workers and spend less money on high costs like training and retooling their systems for new workers. It’s even a win for the private sector.

Certainly the costs are clear when we look at the devastation when huge swaths of people are out of work, like now, for no good reason except the flu. Almost 50% of our workforce knows they might lose their jobs when sick, multiplying many times over the negative impact of being one of the unlucky ones to get the flu during a really bad flu season like this. That possible job loss and passing germs on when sick at work also pushes up the private sector costs when people are unnecessarily fired and then replaced. We need to stabilize our workers just like we need to stabilize the housing market. We need workers who are not passing on potentially dangerous illnesses instead of just staying home and getting well. One key way to do that is making sure that everyone has earned paid sick time so that a public health crisis doesn’t become a negative economic impact.

We need a public commitment to public health including such basic things as zero transmission for HIV and AIDS, which is completely attainable now but will require a major public health commitment. We should not be seeing 3,000 down with the flu in Massachusetts and not enough flu shots to go around for those most susceptible to the illnesses. Their vulnerability becomes a vulnerability for all of us. It’s cheaper to prevent than to treat or suffer the consequences.

It is not just the flu that is making us sick or worse, taking our children or hurting our future.

Just another lesson that our elected leaders could choose to learn that public health belongs to the public domain because it is a public good (or a public bad if we don’t do anything about it).


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