One of the worst flu seasons in a decade is putting further strains on an already sluggish US economy as companies get slammed with increased health care costs and lower productivity from widespread worker absences.
On average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost US employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalization and outpatient visits, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That doesn't include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and worker absenteeism.
But this year, that figure is expected to go much higher, as the flu virus has shown up in some 41 states with 29 of them reporting high or severe levels of sickness as thousands are flooding into hospital emergency rooms and doctor's offices.
"If this is a major influenza outbreak, like the Spanish flu of 1918, it could have a very significant effect on economic growth," said Timothy G. Nash, professor in Free Market Economics at Northwood University. "If GDP is projected to be 2 percent this year, the flu could cut that back to one-half percent growth rate. (Read more: Vaccine Shortages Reported)
"A non-epidemic flu costs the US economy with roughly 36,000 lives and causes more than 200,000 people to be hospitalized and costs our economy," Nash said. "We don't know if this is a like 1918 but we can't ignore the serious nature of what's going on."
"The last thing we need in a slow economy is a major flu epidemic," said Paul Mangiamele, CEO of the Bennigan's restaurant chain located throughout the US. "It's bad enough as it is without the flu taking even more customers away."
Mangiamele said his company is on "orange alert' to try and keep the flu impact to a minimum.
"We have basic high-end standards on hygiene any way but we're doing more work in making sure our utensils are extra clean and making sure the salt and pepper shakers have been rubbed down and every worker washes their hands. We're just ramping up our normal effort," said Mangiamele.
The predominant type of flu that is circulating is H3N2 Influenza A virus, which is making up 76 percent of the viruses reported, according to the CDC.
Doctors urge everyone six months and older to be given a flu shot or vaccine. The CDC said that that flu viruses are likely to be spread for the next two to three months. It's not too late to get the flu shot, but it takes about two weeks for it to offer full protection, said the CDC.
For businesses, suggestions to help cut down the affects of the flu include limiting meetings, allow for flexible work hours, provide hand sanitizers, enourage workers to wash their hand often, and allow workers to stay home without losing their jobs. (Read more: Flu Impact on Stocks)
"Firms really need to get a flu program in place before this gets worse," Challenger said. "Otherwise they won't be productive."
If there's one consolation, the US has a higher quality of health care to handle a flu outbreak than the rest of the world, said Timothy Nash.
"Our health care system is much better than other countries when it comes to handling an epidemic and the economy of other countries would suffer much more than ours," said Nash.