A lot of people have the flu right now. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 29 states are currently experiencing high levels of influenza infection, mostly in the eastern half of the country. More than 2,250 people had been hospitalized as of Dec. 29, the most recent date for which the CDC has data. Boston mayor Thomas Menino, amid a sickness rate that’s 10 times higher than last year’s, has officially declared a public health emergency.
Chances are there’s a flu-carrying sniffler somewhere in your general vicinity right now: in the elevator, across the boardroom table, or—if you take public transportation to work every day—gripping the same subway railings as you with their snotty hands. How can healthy workers successfully stay healthy in during this unusually treacherous flu season?
The easiest way to avoid catching the flu is, of course, with a flu shot. (Do you really need me to tell you this?) There are three types of the virus—Influenza A, B, and C, which mutate independently of one another—and a new vaccine is created every year to guard against that season’s most virulent strands. Health officials recommend that people get vaccinated in the fall so they’re protected all winter, but if the severity of this year’s flu worries you, the FDA says not to fear: There’s still time to get a flu vaccine. Because the flu is constantly changing, the expected success rate of the vaccine is 60 percent to 70 percent any given year.
If you already have the vaccine or for some reason (health problems, procrastination, fear of needles) neglect to get it, there’s little else you can do except wash your hands regularly and hope for the best. The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with people, so if you work in an office, embrace your social anxiety issues and shut the door.
Unfortunately, people who work in so-called open floor plans are out of luck. Not to mention the flight attendants, teachers, retailers, and other professionals who’re forced to interact with the public every day. “It’s so hard to take a day off, what with the substitute plans and playing catch-up when you’re back that most teachers just power through it and come to work feeling terrible,” says Jennifer Orr, a first-grade teacher in Virginia. Orr’s been teaching for 15 years and says there’s no way to avoid catching her students’ colds, especially during flu season. “I carry a hand sanitizer in my pocket at all times just in case I get sneezed on,” she says. “That’s about all I can do.”