- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

A new swine flu culture is descending on America and it’s got us all squealing.

Our sneezes are now a duck-and-cover operation. We fear getting the vaccine and, alternatively, not getting the vaccine. We are so awash in hand sanitizers that one manufacturer warns against hoarding. Our new nation of wide-eyed germphobes now opens doorways in inventive new ways, like with our shoulders. And forget that handshake.

“A handshake is not mandated by the church, and is discouraged during this time,” notes a recent missive from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland to those concerned about the “Passing of the Peace,” a traditional greeting between Episcopalians during Sunday services.

“Continue to verbally share the Peace of our Lord. Making eye contact, slightly bowing your head, or a friendly wave are good substitutes for the traditional handshake or hug,” the diocese advises.

Congregations across the country are also taking precautions with worship rituals of many persuasions. The Department of Health and Human Services has released a guide for churches and religious groups that encourages “interaction without physical contact” and “social distancing measures.”

Job interviews also present a tricky quandary these days.

“The handshake is such an important part of the business culture that a job candidate is really taking a chance by not doing it,” said Greg Stewart, a management professor at the University of Iowa. “Our research has shown that it’s one of the most important indicators of a person’s interpersonal dimensions, so not shaking hands might reflect badly.”

The once-cordial moment could be fraught with peril.

“It really does put the person being interviewed in an awkward position if they’re worried about catching the flu, but there’s really not a good way to get around it,” Mr. Stewart said.

Ambitious but skittish job hunters should wash their hands going in to meet the potential boss - and coming out of the interview as well, he advises. “Or carry some hand sanitizer and use it as soon as they leave the interview,” he said.

Needless to say, sales of such sanitizers are booming; Americans bought up $117 million worth of the gels in 2008, with sales increasing by 50 percent this year, according to Information Resources, a Chicago group that tracks consumer behaviors.

And though Gojo - the Ohio-based makers of Purell hand sanitizer - is running its plants nonstop, the company can’t meet public demand.

“Despite making huge investments to increase our capacity - running our plants 24/7 and increasing our staff - we are unable to keep up with the unprecedented demand,” said Mark Lerner, president and chief operating officer. “Even with increased manufacturing capacity, there is a limit to how much we can produce in a short period of time.”

To add to public uneasiness, Mr. Lerner is predicting a possible temporary shortage of the stuff, and strongly cautions people not to squirrel away Purell. “Stockpiling could cause an actual shortage which, in turn, could threaten public health,” he said.

And speaking of uneasiness, the prospect of a pandemic has been a bonanza for pollsters. Flu fear has taken on a spectrum of symptoms. An Associated Press survey of 1,003 adults conducted Oct. 1-5 revealed that 59 percent of the respondents were afraid of the H1N1 virus - commonly referred to as the swine flu bug. But 72 percent were also uneasy about the potential side effects of the vaccine.

In two recent polls, Rasmussen Reports found that six out of 10 Americans were alarmed by the thought of a sudden swine flu “outbreak” and are washing their hands more often. But the group also found that an equal number of people said shrill coverage of the flu by news organizations is “overhyping” the illness as a potential emergency.

But this may not be a bad thing.

“It is remarkable that - despite the hype - people aren’t yet listening,” said Dr. Margaret Lewin, medical director of Cinergy Health, a Miami-based heath insurer. “This is a highly contagious virus which causes mild disease in most but can be deadly in otherwise healthy young people. Yet, I don’t see many people practicing simple preventive measures.”

And that comes down to specific behaviors: coughing into a tissue or the crook of their arms, washing hands and keeping hands away from faces, Dr. Lewin said. And therein lies some answers. There is a dividing line between practicality and paranoia.

“We must emphasize the above simple measures, not the paranoid extremes of opening doors in weird way or information that frightens us and our children with unnecessary precautions that only hurt the situation,” Dr. Lewin advised.

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