Handshakes can be dangerous

I got a tip about some kind of problem at St. Francis Prep last week. A bunch of kids are sick. Here we go again, I thought! Just a week earlier, I had been sent to Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua. Some 100 kids sick with fever, vomiting, etc.

When I shake the Greeley principal’s hand she said, “I’m surprised you would do that.” I take my hand back and surreptitiously wipe it on my coat.

A bit later, a kid on a bicycle rides up to me. “Do you know any kids who got sick?” I ask.

“Yea,” he answered. “Me.”

“You don’t look so bad,” I said.

“You should have seen me yesterday,” he answered. “Puking all over the place.”

I am glad I had not seen him yesterday.

A few lacrosse players stroll by. I asked them if they are worried. They roll their eyes and laugh. Typical teenagers. And lacrosse players at that. To be 16 and young and indestructible again!

So now, it is another week, and another outbreak.

We head in the direction of St. Francis, and arrive at the home of 15-year-old Prep student Nicholas Nianakos.

His mother tells me he just got over the flu. I absent-mindedly shake Nicholas’s hand. Oh boy, not again! It’s funny how reporters never think they can become part of the story, as if the press pass provides a kind of invisible shield. Reporters are a lot like 16 year olds, only dumber, because we should know better.

Nicholas describes his symptoms, and I say to him, “You don’t look so bad,” but before he can answer, I say, “But I should have seen you yesterday, right?” He laughs, and says, “Yea, but it really was no big deal!” I wondered if he had played lacrosse.

The hard part of these cases is convincing the public that swine flu should be taken seriously, while at the same time not creating panic. It is a difficult line to walk.

While there are plenty who roll their eyes and laugh at communicable diseases, there are just as many who go to extremes. For example, my daughter who works in a pharmacy says there was a run on those “SARS” masks. Then I see there’s no Purell left in Rite-AID.

Anybody can use history to scare you. In 1918 influenza struck, killing 100 million people worldwide, in just 18 months. Of course, in 1918, there was no Purell. And there was nobody on TV telling you every five minutes to wash your hands.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! We saw an administrator at one local health office opening his door with his elbow. “I always do that,” he said. “You should see what I see in a Petrie dish.”

We didn’t shake his hand.


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