H1N1 scare changes the rules of etiquette
By William Loeffler
Published: Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009
Perhaps it's timely that "Monk," the USA television series that stars Tony Shalhoub as a germaphobic detective, ends its eight-year run tonight.
With the nation in collective recoil over the swine flu, the reluctance of Shalhoub's character to shake hands or breathe someone else's air doesn't seem so far-fetched anymore.
The fussy detective definitely would approve of the cautious mood that has people bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, packing hand sanitizer and waiting for the next, less-crowded elevator.
"People treated you so differently," says Francesca Sacco, a junior at Point Park University who came down with flu-like symptoms about two months ago. "They didn't want to be around you."
Her boyfriend, professors and immediate family all kept their distance, she says. During a doctor's visit, her doctor donned a mask, gloves and a gown. He directed her to wear a mask as well. She says the staff visibly relaxed when the doctor determined she didn't have the H1N1 (swine) flu.
Sacco, 21, says she doesn't hold it against anybody.
"Each person has to worry about their health, because if you don't have your health, you really don't have anything," she says.
Last month, Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt of the Diocese of Greensburg directed parishioners to stop shaking hands during the traditional "sign of peace" during Mass.
At the River View Cafe at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore, kitchen staff now change ladles every 15 minutes instead of once every two- to three-hour shift. The cafe is operated by Parkhurst Dining Services.
"During this season, we're taking extra precautions in as many areas as we can," vice president Bryan Marince says.
The public has withstood the onslaught of HIV, SARS, MRSA, Norovirus and West Nile Virus. But few ailments have had such a widespread impact on behavior as the H1N1 flu.
"Influenza affects the masses," says Guillermo Cole, public information officer at the Allegheny County Health Department. "There are relatively small pockets of people affected with all these other diseases that have emerged over time. (But) if you haven't had H1N1, you know somebody who's had it."
Even Santa is taking extra precautions at local mall appearances this holiday season.
The Noerr Programs is a Colorado-based firm that employs 200 Santas at approximately 170 malls throughout the country, including Ross Park Mall, South Hills Village in Bethel Park and Century III Mall in West Mifflin. Spokeswoman Ruth Rosenquist says the company is placing hand sanitizers at the entrance and exit of Santa's domain, as well as supplying sanitary wipes and extra changes of gloves for St. Nick.
"We foresaw that this was going to be a concern this past summer," she says. "We put out preventative tips to all of our employees out in the field. ... I know that we're definitely rotating suits through the cleaning process more often."
And speaking of the holiday season, shoppers now have a number of new germ-fighting products to add to their gift list.
Leery of taking your baby out in public• A stop sign replica from My Tiny Hands ($7.95) can be hung from your baby's stroller. It admonishes, "Please wash your hands before touching mine." Sniffle Buddies ($9.99) are anti-bacterial wristbands that can be used by small children to wipe their noses.
Traveling over the holidays• The Sure Fit Transit Cover ($14.99) fits over a bus or airline seat. For a stocking stuffer, try the Touch-Stick, made by Atek ($2.99, or five for $10). It can be attached to a key ring and used to press the buttons on an ATM or elevator.
Dr. Samuel Stebbins, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the University of Pittsburgh, says people would do better by getting two things: a flu vaccination and a surgical mask.
"I would say there's definitely an overemphasis on this hand sanitizer business," Stebbins says. "There ought to be more emphasis on the vaccine, which we know will work."
Those who get a vaccine are protecting others, he says. Ditto for the surgical mask.
"The standard sort of mask doesn't work well to protect you from other people. They work very well to protect other people from you."
Excela Health has been promoting good cough etiquette and good hand hygiene in its three hospitals, Westmoreland, Latrobe and Frick. In 2006, it received a grant to help monitor infections. The $96,000 came from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council and the Highmark Foundation.
Its patient handbook encourages people to ask staff members whether they've washed their hands. It's no longer rude, says Kate Rosatti, director of infection prevention and control.
"I think now it's opened up the doors that you can be more vocal, whether you're at work or out in the community or dealing with family members," Rosatti says. "Before, that was an awkward place. You might not want to step there. Now, it's opened doors. Now, it's second nature."
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