In Germ Warfare Against Swine Flu, Paranoia Is Winning Out

A Mexico City officer wears a mask, one of the (unproven) defenses against the spread of germs.
A Mexico City officer wears a mask, one of the (unproven) defenses against the spread of germs. (By Gregory Bull -- Associated Press)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Hospital masks on escalators. Empty soap dispensers in public bathrooms. Metro patrons wrapping newspaper around bacteria-ridden poles.

Enter stage right: Swine flu.

Enter stage left: The germaphobes.

"My wife texted me this morning," Russ Haley says over lunch in Union Station. "Can you bring home masks?"

The family is scheduled to fly to Florida next week, Haley explains. His wife didn't want to get on a plane unprotected.

Haley texted back. "NO."

"I've been doing lots of hand sanitizer," says Cheryl Scheir, confessed germ warrior. "Buckets of hand sanitizer." And hand-washing sessions that last the duration of the Alphabet Song.

Amid fears of an approaching aporkalypse, the most contagious disease this week -- at least for a small, hyper-aware portion of the population -- was paranoia. It struck locations such as Union Station's Tschiffely Pharmacy, where containers of hand sanitizer were moved from the back shelf to the front cash register. Travel-size bottles sold out yesterday; the store was also doing brisk business in hospital masks.

But such visible symptoms of this paranoia epidemic, which is contracted mainly through newspapers, Twitter postings and lunchroom gossip, were far less prevalent than the interior monologues that plagued the afflicted.

"Last night, the woman sleeping below me had a horrible cough," says Melissa Ewbank, a tourist visiting Washington from England and staying in a hostel. "Normally, you'd just think that was annoying, but this time I thought, 'Ugh, I hope that's not . . .' "

"I looked at the Metro poles this morning," says Tracie Towner, a Washington accountant. Really gave them a good, hard look, as she had never had cause to do before. "And thought, ewww, do I really want to touch those with my hands?"

She got into work and learned that a similarly concerned office fairy had placed a bottle of hand sanitizer in every cubicle.

It's so easy to contract paranoia. It just takes one errant glance at a headline before you begin thinking, Has co-worker Bob always had allergies? He says it's allergies, but . . . didn't he honeymoon in Mexico? Why is he HERE, breathing all over the place?! I hate Bob.

We are being ridiculous. We know we are being ridiculous. We cannot stop being ridiculous.

But with each new reported case of the flu, an old germaphobe is validated, and a new one is born.

"I went and looked up my symptoms about an hour ago," says Matthew Baldwin, a Seattle programmer. "I knew I was a little hung over, and I also had had a cold with a persistent cough." He wanted "to lay all my symptoms out on the table and see if there were any left unaccounted for." Symptoms that might belong . . . to swine flu.

After careful evaluation, Baldwin determined that he was not sick, and felt a little sheepish that he'd even bothered to worry.

People who wish to validate, rather than quell, their fears can visit The site contains just two words: "Yes. Panic."

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