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The crud is out there, and it’s up to you to avoid it

Sun., Jan. 27, 2013

It was not intended as a public health guideline.

But a classic “Seinfeld” line from years ago could serve as a succinct assessment of the risks we all run during cold and flu season.

“People, they’re the worst.”

Sure, we might try to open doors with our elbows or press elevator buttons with knuckles. But there’s no mistaking what’s really to blame when we get sick. It’s the others.

This can make for problematic social dynamics.

Do you take normal precautions but embrace the day in a personality-plus manner, shaking hands and welcoming human contact? Or do you turn into a shell-shocked version of Haley Joel Osment in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” and stumble around muttering “I see sick people”?

Even if you got a flu shot and wash your hands right and left, chances are you are surrounded by microbial conveyances otherwise known as family, friends and co-workers. You know, “hosts,” “carriers” or “that woman in accounts receivable who has been coughing since 2008.”

Not to be an alarmist or sound like a victim of menacing creatures in an old B movie, but … THEY ARE EVERYWHERE.

To complicate matters, you can’t always tell who among us poses a danger and who is a reasonably healthy life form.

So what’s the solution? Paranoia? Social isolation? Setting up a buffetlike sneeze shield at your desk?

Different people have different answers.

Spokane landscape designer Terry Smith tries to sit far away from “wheezers and gaspers” on the bus.

High school English teacher Mark Majeski has learned to keep the box of tissues on the opposite side of the classroom.

Karen Gemmell, a Spokane resident who works in Cheney, tries to hold her breath around sick people.

Virginia Czechowski, who is 90, has found that the best way to stay away from sickness is simply to not go out unless absolutely necessary.

But what if that’s not really an option?

And what if your workplace is a virtual petri dish teeming with frowny-face organisms?

Marianne Fischer is a school nurse assigned to six elementary schools and one middle school. She refers to the typical school health room as a “cesspool of germs.”

Her defense against infection? “I always use paper towels to open and close doors,” she said. “Wash my hands continually.”

What else? “Pray for the best and keep a few sick days handy.”

A microbiology major who wound up as a pediatrician, Spokane’s Dr. Deborah Harper knows exactly what she’s up against.

Dealing with an unending procession of hacking, sniffling kids, she spends her days in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

So here’s what she does, in addition to getting her own flu and whooping cough vaccinations.

“I use a nonsoap cleanser before and after seeing any patients. I wash my hands after using the bathroom and turn off the water and open the door with a paper towels.

“I tend to open doors that have push-bars with my side or back (too much time in operating rooms in earlier days) but use my hands on door knobs in public places. Sometimes, OK, I get crazy and use my sleeve over my hands or a glove to open doors, but not usually.

“I try to keep my hands away from my face. Harder than it seems.

“With coughers in public I try not to let the spray land in my face or on my hand, but there’s only so much one can do.

“I do not use the wipes in grocery stores to wipe off the cart/basket handles. I figure there is enough coughing on the produce and dirty hands on the freezer doors that I’m doomed anyway.

“In short, I keep my hands clean and try to keep them away from my face.”

An upbeat woman, having to take these steps has not soured Harper on humanity.

Others, however, suggest that there are a few types we could do without.

“My strategy for avoiding colds and flu is to stay away from fast-food service workers who are sneezing and wiping their noses on their sleeves,” said Mike Farrell, an attorney for the Washington State Department of Health.

Real estate professional Sue Libby said one of her pet peeves is virus sufferers failing to postpone business or social meetings when they obviously are overflowing vessels of phlegm. “I would rather reschedule,” she said.

When college professor Michael Ingram encounters someone with poor coughing etiquette, he stands way back and gives that person “the look.”

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Just in case, he drinks a lot of orange juice.

Of course, not every prevention plan works. People still get sick.

But you have to suspect Charlotte Applegate might have found the perfect tactic for her own situation.

“The main thing I did to stay well during cold and flu season was to retire from teaching elementary school,” she said.

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