Infectious Disease Counterintuitry

If you don’t like the word I invented (I’m rather fond of it), slatepitch will do just fine. Speaking of Slate, a Slate writer was granted space on the New York Times op-ed page to decry the effort to keep sick officeworkers home–no really (boldface mine):

We all know the type: the colleague who comes in to work, red-eyed and drippy, and puts his germy fingers on the handle of the coffeepot or the button of the microwave door. He could have called in sick, but that would take a modicum of decency. No, this guy is a “team player.” He’s a cubicle Cal Ripken Jr., the office iron man with Sudafed.

We may hate him for his selfish play at martyrdom, but we’re too polite to say so. Instead we squirt Purell on our hands and feign concern: “You seem a little under the weather. Why not take the rest of the day off?” Behind his back it’s an open season of sniping and reproach: He’s the one who’s feverish and suffering, but we can’t stop ourselves from taking umbrage at his grief. His zeal for overwork is putting us at risk.

Or is it? You may have seen reports about the spread of germs at work. (The media love these tales of viral diaspora.) One of the latest comes from Charles P. Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist who placed a (harmless) tracer virus on the front-door handle of an 80-person office. Within four hours, he found the virus on more than half the workers’ hands and more than half the common surfaces.

That fact, widely covered in the press, makes it sound as if we should impose a policy of office-worker quarantine. But this was more a gross-out stunt than a risk assessment. The mere presence of a marker virus doesn’t tell us which, if any, office workers might be likely to contract a real infection.

Even if the spread of germs to furniture does represent an important vector of disease — still only a theory — we can take measures of protection. Dr. Gerba found that the presence of hand sanitizer in the break room, for example, and disinfectant wipes elsewhere in the office, reduced the number of infected surfaces by 80 percent. (Then again, these numbers come from a researcher who has been accused of fear-mongering on behalf of the cleaning industry.)

In fact, there’s not much evidence that office cubicles are any more infectious than, say, subways or supermarkets. Hospitals, day care centers, cruise ships, senior homes: These are places where people interact with body fluids, and transmission risk is high. In office buildings, we just don’t have the same degree of contact.

At any rate, the science suggests that it’s not adults who drive the spread of influenza but children. Kids start shedding the virus several days before the onset of their symptoms, and can remain infectious for up to three weeks after. For grown-ups, the window is much smaller — just a few days on average. That helps explain why flu appears to spread more slowly during winter break and pick up again when children return to school.

Note what the author did there: he went from general viral illness to influenza. Personally, I’m not worried about the influenza virus: I’ve had my flu shot, and the transition time from asymptomatic to being hammered by influenza is pretty quick (the idea that anyone with sick days–an importnat caveat–would go to work, never mind function, is ludicrous–influenza is awful). Add to that, in any given year, most people don’t get influenza (usually 5 – 20%, often towards the low end). No, what I worry about are the annoying rhinoviruses–colds. They’re debilitating, some viruses more than others and in some people more than others. For me, while I only experience one or two really lousy days due to a cold, there’s a lingering ‘blahness’ that lasts for a few days (up to a week) after that.

Again, I’m not really worried that the “feverish” co-worker is going to give me influenza (and influenza isn’t always associated with fever). But someone with a bad cold, who is coughing and sneezing, can still make me miserable for around a week. So don’t be a dick, and Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, ignore the counterintuitry from Slate people.

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1 Response to Infectious Disease Counterintuitry

  1. Dbp says:

    The “only a theory” language is a nice denialist fluourish

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