Kindergarten teacher Renee Edwards saw it coming. After the winter holidays, her young students usually arrive back at school bouncing with energy and full of tales about Santa and presents.
This year, children were dragging, said Edwards, who teaches at Dumfries Elementary School in Prince William County. Edwards, a teacher for seven years, recognized the signs: The flu was about to sweep through her class.
"It hit one or two of our kids right after New Year's," Edwards said. "My aide got it and it really wiped her out. She came back on Wednesday, and Tuesday, lo and behold, I got it."
The bug has spread to about 15 of her 46 students, she said. Edwards returned to work on Friday, but by the end of the day her chipper teacher voice had lost some of its lilt. "I'm exhausted. I'm going home to collapse," she said.
In schools and businesses across the Washington area, the flu has taken its toll on those who've caught the bug and those trying to cover for stricken colleagues.
The Centers for Disease Control says it has no statistical evidence that this year's flu outbreak is unusually severe. But hospitals have reported seeing more than the usual number of flu patients streaming into emergency rooms, and several employers say absenteeism is higher than normal for the winter season.
In Fairfax County schools, there's been a 21 percent increase in staff absences in early January compared with the same time last year, said schools spokesman Paul Regnier. "That's definitely a spike," he said.
At country radio station WMZQ in Rockville, the flu has spread with ferocity among the on-air staff. First Carol Munse, the disc jockey from noon to 3 p.m., got sick. Then Jon Anthony, who's on from 10 a.m. to noon, succumbed.
Bernie Lucas, the station's production director, filled in for Anthony on Friday, even though Lucas wasn't feeling well the night before. By the end of his shift, he too was ready to crawl into bed.
It's the shared microphones, telephones and headsets, all breeding places for germs, that probably got him, Lucas believes. "It just feels painful, and I have a really raspy cough," he said. "I'm sure I'm keeping whoever makes DayQuil and NyQuil in business."
The flu's impact is especially strong at small businesses. At Accutek Assemblies Inc., a company in Manassas that assembles electronic components and routinely uses temporary help to turn around orders quickly, four out of seven long-term temporary employees were out sick for at least part of last week.
Judy Bailey, the company's general manager, said she's also been missing staff members who had to take time off to attend sick relatives. Bailey so far has escaped the flu. "I've gotten by with just an upper respiratory infection," she said.
Jane Hampton, co-owner of Express Personnel Services, a Manassas company that places temporary employees, said both her own pool of workers and the employers she works with were hit hard right after Christmas.
"It snuck up on us and everyone over the holidays," said Hampton, who supplies workers to 40 to 60 companies at a time. "I think every office and every client that we deal with has had someone go out."
The illness swept through the kitchen staff at two D.C. restaurants owned by Ann Cashion--Cashion's Eat Place in Adams-Morgan and Johnny's Half Shell in Dupont Circle.
Cashion had to ask healthy employees to work extra shifts to fill in for those who were out sick. She thinks the worst of the outbreak may be over.
"It was serious business," said Cashion, who also came down with the flu. "It made me think we should definitely have someone come and make the flu shot available on site."
The flu vaccine is effective in 70 to 90 percent of healthy people under 65, medical experts say, though it takes from one to two weeks to reach its full strength. The vaccine is somewhat less effective for the elderly but can still make the season less severe and prevent complications such as pneumonia.
The best treatment for the flu is a lot of rest and fluids, doctors say. Two new anti-flu drugs--Relenza, an inhaled medication, and Tamiflu, a pill--are on the market for the first time this year. They are effective only if taken within the first 24 to 48 hours after infection. The Food and Drug Administration is looking into a handful of reports of patients who may have been prescribed the drugs inappropriately.
Doctors say they're not sure if the season has reached its peak yet. Other flu outbreaks have generally petered out in February or March.
Brad Edwards, general manager for the Renaissance Washington D.C. Hotel, said his office is braced for the worst but so far hasn't been seriously disrupted.
"We haven't seen a major rash of people call in sick, but there have been some," he said. "It's been more on the level of [employees'] kids getting sick, and we've had managers not be able to come in. I've got two kids down and a wife who doesn't feel too good."
In the Prince William County government building, many offices were short-staffed Friday. County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak was sidelined by the flu, as were several of her colleagues.
"Those that are getting it, it's really taking them down," said Jo Scott, a secretary in Pandak's office.