What We Learned from the Swine-Flu Panic
If you're reading this, you're not dead, no one you know has been quarantined, and you just spent half your paycheck on Purell and masks that you're never going to use. At press time, Washington State Department of Health officials had confirmed 45 probable cases of swine flu in Washington State, nine of which had been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control. However, in a press release, the King County Public Health department says this swine-flu outbreak "appear[s] no more severe than a typical flu season." By now, you're probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
Well, despite the apparent mildness of this strain of swine flu, last week's outbreak taught us some valuable lessons:
• It is very easy to panic and very difficult to keep things in perspective. When the World Health Organization raised its pandemic threat level to five (of six) and declared a pandemic "imminent," everyone freaked. With initial reports of hundreds of deaths and thousands of illnesses in Mexico, it was easy to leap to the conclusion that we were in for something akin to the 1918 flu outbreak, which killed 50 million people and infected 500 million. During the panic, it was also easy to forget that when all those people died in 1918, people still shat in buckets and made soap out of dirt.
• Even though the wall-to-wall swine-flu coverage on Slog, The Stranger's blog, probably made you panic more than you needed to, panicking made you wash your hands 30 times a day, which is probably what kept you from getting sick in the first place. You can thank us later.
• Things would be better if we were always in pandemic mode. Hospital waiting rooms become shockingly empty and airlines occasionally bother to clean their planes. Every- body wins!
• The state and King County are not equipped to deal with the press during a major crisis. As things got worse and more reporters inundated state and local health departments with phone calls and questions, agencies' response times slowed dramatically. At one point, news outlets were several steps ahead of the state and county health departments' press teams and were breaking news about new cases and school closures hours before some health-department spokespeople knew anything about them. During a media tour of the state's health lab, a state department of health spokesman worried aloud into his cell phone that the governor was going to find out about new swine-flu cases from the media, not health officials.
This is bad. During a disaster, people need rapid updates from websites and TV stations. If the state and county can't get information to the press efficiently, you're not going to know what's going on either.
• It wouldn't kill schools to have full-time nurses during outbreaks. Eighty percent of Seattle's 92 schools have no full-time nurses on staff, and the Seattle school district left it up to teachers to spot sick kids at schools. "Parents should be [monitoring] as well," says Seattle Public Schools spokesman David Tucker. "It's not just the school district's job." But in a tough economic climate, parents are less likely to stay home with their kids if it means they may lose their job, or even a day's pay. While teachers do receive some training on how to spot a sick kid, they're definitely not as qualified as certified medical staff to make a diagnosis and react.
• Your stupid vegan friends were probably right: Factory farms are going to be the death of us all. While no conclusive link has been found between swine flu and a Smithfield hog farm in Mexico, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed last week that the strain of swine flu causing this outbreak came from a strain that was first found on a North Carolina factory farm. Nothing good can come from the mass industrialization of food.
• Nevertheless, pork is still delicious and should be eaten regularly to punish those stupid animals for spreading disease.
• In case of pandemic, you don't want to be on the bus. Metro general manager Kevin Desmond says the agency has no plans to clean buses more frequently during a pandemic and advises that people cover their cough, stay home if they're sick, and wash their hands frequently. None of which is going to save you when you're crammed onto the number 4 bus next to a swine-flu victim on his way to Harborview.
• There are only two kinds of people: those who heed panicky warnings about outbreaks and sequester themselves in their homes with a shotgun and 400 cans of beans, and people who still go out on Friday nights and bump and grind and share drinks in hot, humid clubs. While being in the former category might not always be as fun, you're probably more likely to survive the apocalypse.
• Make sure you stock up on emergency supplies before the shit hits the fan. Stores quickly sold out of hand sanitizers, breathing masks, and Vienna sausages. Stock up quickly or you'll end up with a survival kit filled with SpongeBob Band-Aids, butter beans, and jellied beef.
• If you do get to the store after panic breaks out and the shelves have been stripped bare, you can make a perfectly acceptable Purell substitute with two parts rubbing alcohol and one part dish soap.
• Oh, yeah: This isn't over. Canadian officials have quarantined an Alberta hog farmer after he apparently gave swine flu to one of his pigs. Right now, humans have no antibodies equipped to deal with swine flu. The virus could pose a huge risk if it were to mutate, grow stronger, and come back with a vengeance next flu season. That's what happened in 1918, when a second, deadlier wave of influenza spread across the globe.
"With a new virus, you don't know what it's going to do," says Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. "Whenever you get a new influenza strain looking like it has something to do with both pigs and birds... there's a lot of opportunity for the virus to... create a larger pandemic threat."
Kimball says that even though the U.S. influenza season is drawing to a close, the virus could survive in countries in the southern hemisphere, which are just now moving into flu season. "I'm getting less worried every day, at least as far as the United States [is concerned]," Kimball says. "But you have to understand I'm an optimist. If you looked at my 401(k), you'd understand my intuition is usually wrong."