Is the flu patrol giving you flu guilt?

A crowded Chicago cafe. Customers sit elbow to elbow.

A man coughs.

I turn my head toward the hacker. So do several others. Our eyes aim for him like bullets.

Kill the germ spitter!

The man ignores our glares, returns to studying his laptop screen, and the rest of us resume reading, writing, chatting. Then he coughs again, a big gurgling rat-a-tat-tat this time, and half a dozen heads swivel in unison again, and though no one says a word, the chorus of condemnation is loud:

Read our looks, filthy beast. Get out!

It was in this moment a couple of days ago, unable to restrain my reaction to the hacker, that I realized I had joined the flu patrol, a vast vigilante network that is roaming the nation this year in response to a) the widespread occurrence of the flu and b) the widespread media coverage of the flu as the most apocalyptic threat since anthrax.

Do you glare at coughing strangers? Do you admonish sniffling co-workers to go the bleep home? Do you harangue friends who haven't gotten flu shots? Do you tell parents to keep their sneezing children locked up until the munchkins' little noses are as dry as a tortilla chip?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, your flu-patrol badge is in the mail.

Everybody has a flu story lately.

Some people tell tales of the villain who gave them the virus, or the ones who might. Others, on the other hand, have tales of being targeted by the flu patrol.

A colleague reports that his boss, who works a six-second walk down the hall, phoned him after hearing his mild cough and asked that he not attend the daily meeting.

"I've been quarantined," this colleague said, clearing his throat and insisting he is not ill.

"It is interesting to see the horror on all faces if anyone in public sneezes or coughs," wrote Beth Ann Reed when I quizzed Facebook acquaintances on the subject. "Everyone within earshot takes a step back and sneers in disgust. I feel like I should be wearing a sign from my doctor that asserts I suffer from year-round allergies, NOT the flu."

Another Facebook respondent, Pamela Halloran Adema, wrote that she has felt like a leper since she contracted a secondary lung infection.

"Strangers come up to me and tell me I should go home and rest and think of others," she reported. "I want to hang a sign on my back: 'Not contagious.'"

Members of the flu patrol can be merciless. They are not apt to make exceptions for those who don't have the luxury of paid sick days, and they have little pity for workaholics like a colleague I know who, as a result, is afflicted with what he calls "flu guilt."

"I was raised with the idea that you came into work no matter what," he says. "If that meant crawling to work with your severed foot in your backpack, you did it. But things have changed. When I woke up sick Friday, I knew that I would get the serious stink-eye from my co-workers if I showed up. So I didn't. And when I returned three-quarters healthy on Monday, I was interrogated about whether I had gotten the flu shot. I hadn't, for some stupid reason, and was made to feel like I had betrayed the herd, that I was a traitor to my species."

Some members of the flu patrol have had the flu themselves, and so their zeal is born of their own suffering. Other patrol members are health care workers who have seen up close the dangers the flu poses, especially to the elderly and the very young.

But some members of the flu patrol are, let's face it, just busybodies with poor manners.

As a member of the flu patrol, I feel obliged to repeat this public service announcement:

Wash your hands. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze (but not with your bare hand). Don't touch your face. Disinfect surfaces that you or others may have sneezed or hacked on. If you get sick, stay home if you can.

But as someone who has been known to violate all those rules, I implore the flu patrol: Don't be rude to the snifflers among us.

mschmich@tribune.com

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