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PLAYING IT SAFE

Flu scare comes with a dose of craziness

The Dance family of Great Falls is having a close encounter with swine flu. Mom LeeAnn and daughter Casey Malone, 16, have the illness, but dad Glenn and son William, 9, do not.
The Dance family of Great Falls is having a close encounter with swine flu. Mom LeeAnn and daughter Casey Malone, 16, have the illness, but dad Glenn and son William, 9, do not. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Donna St. George
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Glenn Dance does not have swine flu. But when he took the family cat to the veterinarian last week, he was greeted in the parking lot by workers in surgical masks. They knew that his wife and daughter had the flu and told Dance that he was not allowed inside.

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Dance, who lives in Great Falls, obliged. Then he went along when he was asked to don rubber gloves to sign his pet's paperwork. And again when they said to keep the pen -- and wait in his pickup -- as Cleo was whisked away for a 90-minute work-up.

"It was like a scene from 'E.T.'," he decided -- except that it was a scene from the strange times of swine flu.

With flu cases and anxiety surging across the region and with President Obama declaring the H1N1 flu a national emergency, the usual drumbeat of family life has been infused with a mix of the scary, the odd, the humorous and the surreal.

Parties and play dates have been canceled. Children have been sent home from school. Flu vaccine has seemed as hard to get as sold-out concert tickets, only more frightening to miss out on. Families say coming down with swine flu can feel a little like being visited by the plague.

Lisa Cuomo, 39, who is eight months pregnant, had her swine flu scare Oct. 6 when her 6-year-old son landed in the emergency room with a high fever. Afterward, she developed flu symptoms, too, and posted on Facebook: "It's H1N1 -- Stay away from us!"

Friends took her at her word. They brought soup to her home in Northern Virginia but made quick drop-offs on her porch, skittering away without the usual embrace. "They rang the doorbell and called me as they drove away," she said.

Even after her child was fever-free, she kept him home several more days. "I thought, 'We can't send him back to school. People will be scared to death,' " she said. The experience was pretty isolating, if understandable, she said. "I felt like we should have a big 'S' on our house."

Strong reactions

With worst-case flu stories dominating the public imagination, the fear of contagiousness has created new expectations about exactly what qualifies as being sick.

Rafe Petersen said his preschool e-mail group list in Chevy Chase lit up at the news that a parent had dropped off a child who appeared slightly sick but who the parent did not think was truly ill.

"People went nuts," said Petersen, 39, a father of three. "The reaction was, 'How dare you!' "

This sort of upset would not have happened last year, Petersen said. But as families try to sort out the confusing risks of swine flu, "I think people are on edge, and I think there's a little paranoia and a little hysteria."


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