'Tis the Season, Again…

We gather often this time of year. We visit our friends and families. We go to office parties. We attend more church services. We go to stores and shopping malls and we make twice as many trips to the grocery store as usual. We eat out more as our instinct to gather is at its highest.

Little passengers ride along with us on our travels. Viruses and bacteria, which are always present, begin to find purchase on our unwashed handshaking, buggy pushing, door opening hands. They float into our nasal passages, which are more vulnerable when they are dry and cracked open because the humidity is so low, as it is in many of our homes now since we turned on the heat.

Influenza is already making headlines in the Southeast, and here at home we’re being visited by the two week demon cold with the cough that never goes away. Unfortunately the things we enjoy most about the season are also the things that contribute to the spread of colds and flu.

Uncle Bert wasn’t feeling very good when he got on the plane to visit the relatives for Thanksgiving. Mid flight he wasn’t feeling good at all, and didn’t quite get that sneeze covered in time. A few days later the young mother who was sitting next to Bert noticed a sore throat when she dropped her kids off at the daycare, and a week later half the kids in daycare and several of their parents were sick.

The spread of cold and flu viruses is a natural consequence of the season. But there are two factors which contribute heavily to the spread of disease, and both of them are avoidable. The two things we’re going to talk about this week are: Stupidity and selfishness.

Here’s a flu season vignette for your consideration. Let’s see how it compares with your own experience. We were eating in a restaurant in “another town.” (No one would ever do something like this in Hiawassee or Young Harris, right?) The waiter approached the table with a complexion which evoked an image of the skin on a bowl of cold gravy. We exchanged greetings, and in response to “How are you?” he said, “I was really sick yesterday but I feel a little better today. I should probably still be at home.”

At that exact moment we noticed his thumbs in the plates he was bringing to our table. One thumb was cozied right up to my pancake. My appetite evaporated like a drop of water on a hot skillet. I noticed that unconsciously my wife and I had both retreated to the far side of the booth we were sitting in, and I was holding my breath.

My first instinct was to say nothing, get up and leave the restaurant. What would you do? With an airborne virus, the damage was already done, and while we live in an age where making a scene is, sadly, growing more commonplace, it would have accomplished nothing. We opted to have a quiet word with the owner instead (and I discarded the part of my pancake with the thumbprint).

“But you have to understand, some people can’t afford to miss work, and they might not get paid for being home sick!”

I understand. I also understand that for the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, getting the flu is far more than an inconvenience. I understand that some people who do get paid sick days at work use them for paid mini vacations, and when they really do get sick, they show up for work.

I understand that when an employee does not demonstrate enough responsibility to stay home when they’re sick, it’s up to the manager or owner of the business to be accountable and send that person home. It would behoove them also to avoid punishing an employee for being out sick, and to allow that person to make up lost time.

We all understand that economics is a big factor in this equation. The sick employee is trying to make a dollar and the business is trying to save one. But as a business owner, consider this. Which would you prefer? Would you rather lose a few dollars having to pay someone overtime to cover the shift of a sick employee, or would you rather lose my business for the entirety of the flu season while I tell all my friends and associates why I’m not eating at your restaurant?

Here’s a conversation I overheard at the grocery store when a woman ran into someone she knew: “I can’t seem to shake this cold. I’ve been so miserable at home, I just had to get out of there.” She said this while picking up tomatoes and examining them before putting them back in the bin. She paused to sneeze into her hand before resuming her tomato inspection.

Exposure to cold and flu viruses is unavoidable. Being selfish and stupid is entirely avoidable. If you’re sick, STAY HOME. It doesn’t matter how bored you get or how bad your cabin fever becomes. That is no justification for exposing people to your germs. If you simply must go out, wear a mask and gloves. I will be forever grateful to the sick woman I saw last week who wore a mask to the drugstore to pick up her medication.

Staying home is also an option for people with weak or compromised immune systems, and a mask and gloves is a good idea for you as well on those occasions when you just have to go out. It doesn’t matter how it looks, and if people recoil or give you extra space because they think you’re sick, so much the better.

Perhaps we should also learn to politely confront situations where we are needlessly exposed to germs. God knows we’re becoming adept at confronting people about things that don’t matter, like political opinions. The guy holding the damp Kleenex in one hand, stocking the grapes at the grocery store with the other, nose dripping into the bin, should be ashamed. Should we confront him, or talk to the manager? Every situation is different.

Probably the best we can hope for, however, is to better manage our own behavior during flu season, and common sense is a good guide. We can shop during hours when there are fewer people in the stores (and most of us could shop less this time of year). We can treat every surface that can be touched by human hands as contaminated.

We can wash our hands as many times as needed. We can program ourselves to keep our fingers away from our faces in between hand washings (and teach our kids to do the same). We can wash our produce with vinegar and/or peroxide. We can reschedule gatherings of family and friends for a time when everyone is healthy.

Science continues to battle sickness, but there is little we can do in the battle against stupidity and selfishness. Yet we continue to try, and if one person listens, if one sick person decides it’s probably not a good idea to go to the movies; if one manager decides to send home the waiter with the gravy complexion, then our effort has not been wasted.

Today the flu season is an inconvenience for most of us. It will be a death sentence for some. Some day the stakes may be higher when a pandemic stalks the public spaces.

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