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Take a lesson from Hillary Clinton: Stay home, rest, listen to your doctor while seriously ill

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, 7:21 p.m.
Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the Black Women's Agenda's 29th Annual Symposium on September 16, 2016 in Washington, DC.  Clinton is back on the trail and campaigning in D.C. after taking some time off to recover from pneumonia.
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Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the Black Women's Agenda's 29th Annual Symposium on September 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. Clinton is back on the trail and campaigning in D.C. after taking some time off to recover from pneumonia.

Hillary Clinton's pneumonia episode taught us some lessons about the perils of going to work while sick.

Clinton, 68, became ill during a ceremony to observe the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A spokeswoman initially said the Democratic presidential nominee felt overheated, but her campaign later revealed she'd been diagnosed with pneumonia, a serious illness that clearly should not have been dismissed.

But dismissive we are when it comes to diseases.

We've made it perfectly acceptable to go to work sniffling and coughing and so stuffy people can't understand us when we talk.

These habits are worse among people who have low-paying jobs and those who frequently deal with the public in places such as restaurants and hospitals, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and National Public Radio. That's right, some of your waiters and nurses might be going to work while sick.

I know. Makes me want to never go to a restaurant again.

Turns out we live in a culture of “presenteeism,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at UPMC, told me. We want to be everywhere no matter how deathly ill we are. I can't tell you how many times I've been to a movie and I'm surrounded by people who are coughing.

That's especially true during flu season, when all sorts of germs are throwing parties in our schools, homes and offices.

There have been times in my workplace when I've been surrounded by so many people hacking and sneezing, we joke we're in a TB ward. I keep a large can of Lysol under my desk and a big tub of antibacterial gel near my keyboard in an attempt to protect myself.

Adalja said there are no strict guidelines to follow regarding reporting to work when sick, but some hospitals and schools may have their own rules.

“Often the decision to return to the workplace will depend on a person's other illnesses, their potential contagiousness and how they are feeling. This will be different for each person,” he said.

Some people argue that they have to work while sick because they don't get paid sick time off and they just can't afford to miss work. That's understandable. The flip side, however, is that they might contaminate others, creating an inevitable merry-go-round of germs.

What's more, Adalja said, is that “when people work while sick, they often perform sub-optimally — for good reason, as their illness affects their ability to perform their tasks with their usual level of acumen.”

Clinton, of course, was not technically “at work” and didn't really have to show up at that 9/11 event. But she is campaigning, after all, and one day out of the news cycle can translate into a lot of lost votes.

The former secretary of State had pneumonia, not a run-of-the-mill cold. Her doctors warned her to rest. After all, pneumonia is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. Clinton later acknowledged, however, that she had foolishly dismissed the warning as not a big deal.

So let's all acknowledge that staying home and watching talk shows or old movies should be mandatory for anyone who's nursing a serious cold, the flu, or pneumonia.

Even presidential candidates.

Luis Fábregas is editor of the Pittsburgh edition of the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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