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The $5.8 billion hidden cost of the flu on the US economy

Much to the distress of human resource departments across the country, there's no way to predict how bad this year's flu epidemic will be. But a look back at the illness' impact on employers last year shows it's a good idea to prepare for the worst.

A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released this month looks at the impact of unvaccinated adults on the economy. And last year alone, the flu accounted for $5.8 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. Some 80 percent of those losses were tied to people who chose not to get vaccinated.

A flu shot being administered in Concord, California.
Getty Images

Most health-care officials consider the 2015–16 flu season a relatively mild one, but should the 2016–17 influenza outbreak reach pandemic levels, it's going to make last year's numbers look microscopic. A study from the Society for Risk Analysis published in June estimated the potential GDP loss of a pandemic outbreak to be between $34.4 billion and $45.3 billion.

That scenario is unlikely, of course, but it's not impossible. In 2009–10, the H1N1 virus spread quickly across the country and was classified as pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 43 million and 89 million people contracted H1N1 between April 2009 and April 2010.

While scientists put together historical and worst-case scenario models for this year's season, workplaces are in the unenviable position of having to sit and wait to react. Although the CDC is asked regularly what sort of severity predictions it has for the upcoming flu season (which officially begins this month and runs through May), it says such forecasts are largely useless.

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"It's not possible to predict what this flu season will be like," the organization says on its website. "While flu spreads every year, the timing, severity and length of the season varies from one year to another. ... Flu viruses are constantly changing, so it's not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year."

It's too early at this point to know which strain of the flu will be dominant. Vaccinations are made to fight the strains that have appeared so far, but that's subject to change as it evolves.

This season's off to a grim start, though, with North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services reporting that state's first flu-related death of the 2016–17 season on Oct. 13.

As it does every year, the CDC is urging people — especially seniors and those who work in office environments (where the flu can spread quickly) to get a flu shot. The problem is, more people seem to be opting against that.

Nationally, 45.6 percent of the nation's population, or about 144 million people, got vaccinated for the 2015–16 flu season, a drop of 1.5 percent from the previous season, according to the CDC.

And while even with the vaccine there's no guaranteed way to avoid the flu, the authors of the Chapel Hill study note that strongly encouraging employees to do so could greatly reduce the impact on businesses.

"Vaccines save thousands of lives in the United States every year, but many adults remain unvaccinated," they wrote. "Low rates of vaccine uptake lead to costs to individuals and society in terms of death and disabilities, which are avoidable, and they create economic losses from doctor visits, hospitalizations and lost income."

— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com