Watch Out For the Flu!

Column by Sharon Byrne as featured in this week’s Santa Barbara Sentinel.

Full disclosure: I am one of those people who pay little attention to flu. I rarely get sick. I never bother getting flu shots.

I came down with the flu over the holidays, and trudged off to the drug store for decongestants and aspirin. I took to bed for a couple of days, and coughed and sneezed for a couple of weeks. It was annoying, debilitating, and exhausting.

Then I saw all the headlines about the flu outbreak in the US. This year seems to be the most lethal in a decade for influenza. Boston had 70 cases reported last winter, but over 700 this year, prompting the city to declare a state of emergency. 47 states have reported widespread outbreaks, though California is not one of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Public health officials are tracking the outbreak, and even using Twitter and Google to keep on top of the situation.

Even though flu is like a nasty uber-cold on steroids for some of us, it can actually be deadly ­ particularly to vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Dr. Wada, head of Santa Barbara County Public Health, presented flu data for the county at the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning. He said our first death in the county from influenza occurred this week, an 80 year-old woman.

Geof Bard

I’ve also been receiving emails and updates from Geof Bard, a self-described community health activist, and a man who has taken flu evangelism to new heights.

Geof became an activist in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis, considered a significant turning point in the National Institute of Health’s response to the public outcry. Now residing in Santa Barbara, Geof has taken to educating others about the flu, speaking out at the Board of Supervisors and City Council meetings. His particular interest right now is
in preventing the spread among a group that often struggles with a compromised immune system, and spends a lot of time outdoors: the homeless.

With the onset of cold temperatures, warming centers began opening up. Geof saw the potential for problems: people congregating and sleeping in common areas, unaware of the potential for flu outbreaks, lack of prevention measures in place, and with no method of containment readily available.

He decided to do something about it.

Geof teaches cough hygiene as a way to prevent the spread of influenza. He’s launched the Cough Hygiene Initiative, a sub-project of his Alliance to Teach Everywhere About Community Health ( Like any good evangelist, he¹s fierce, tenacious, and naturally, ruffles feathers, including those of warming center staff, and Reverend Mark Asman, over conditions at that camp at the labyrinth of Trinity Episcopal Church last year.

I sat down with Geof to see why he was so determined to spread awareness about this year¹s flu outbreak. Flu is viral, in the literal sense of that word. It spreads. The National Institute of Health published a study in 1982 showing that flu viruses can live up to 24 hours on stainless steel and plastic. Those same viruses lasted for 8-12 hours on cloth, paper and tissue surfaces. Think about how much transference is possible just by hand, when you touch money, door handles, clothing, blankets, cutlery, etc. Then touch your nose, mouth, or rub an eye, something we all do, unconsciously, multiple times daily, and you¹ve got it.

To prevent flu spread, wash your hands often. Use anti-bacterial gel and hand sanitizer.

Influenza transmission is also airborne. Droplets from coughing or sneezing can extend up to 6 feet outwards. Super-tiny particles from talking or breathing can remain airborne for hours. In close quarters like a warming center, influenza spread would be nearly guaranteed.

To minimize exposure, Geof urges that you cough and sneeze into your elbow, rather than into your hands. This will reduce the airborne contingent, and reduce chance of touch transmission.

Geof is relieved that the national flu outbreak is making it into the public awareness locally, and is focused on helping the homeless avoid contagion. He secured funding for and distributed personal headlamps to those who successfully modeled the elbow cough technique. He distributes the hand sanitizers to homeless outreach organizations, meal providers and, of course, to the homeless.

Take your health, and the health of those around you, seriously this winter. Use these measures to avoid the flu. Stay home if you’re sick. Get that flu shot.

I know I will be.

About Sharon Byrne

About Sharon Byrne Sharon Byrne found herself unwittingly thrust into municipal and political issues when she took a sabbatical from her corporate career, and moved to West Downtown in late 2008, a neighborhood in serious decay. She helped engineer a major turnaround there working with engaged neighborhood women. She served on the Franklin Neighborhood Center Advisory Committee, and the Neighborhood Advisory Council. She is the executive director for the Milpas Community Association, and currently serves on the Advisory Boards for the Salvation Army Hospitality House and Santa Barbara County Alcohol and Drug Problems. She is a former Deputy Director of Common Cause in California, and has worked on several ballot initiatives locally and at the state level. Her education in engineering and psychology gives her an unusual mix of skills for working on quality-of-life, public safety, and public policy issues.

11 Responses to Watch Out For the Flu!

  1. SB Seashells January 17, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Do anything to avoid this! Been out two weeks and its miserable :-(

  2. John Tieber January 17, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    Good to see this, Sharon; what Geof is doing is really commendable.

    Regarding the flu vaccine that is being so vigorously promoted in Santa Barbara (to everyone, not just, as in the past, to those defined as particularly at-risk):

    Does anyone know which pharmaceutical corporation(s) produce this product and, if so, whether they have been convicted of any felonies, or are currently under a corporate integrity agreement?

    The global pharmaceutical industry has been fined more than $11 billion in the past three years for criminal wrongdoing, including WITHHOLDING SAFETY DATA and promoting drugs for use beyond their licensed conditions.

    From the UK Independent (link below):

    “…In all, 26 companies, including eight of the 10 top players in the global industry, have been found to be acting dishonestly…

    From the New England Journal of Medicine (link at bottom):
    “…25 major companies and 8 of the top 10 global pharmaceutical companies were under “corporate integrity agreements” …Corporate integrity agreements, now a routine part of settlements for health care fraud, typically require enhanced compliance activities within the company for 5 years, including reports to the government from an independent monitor.”

    ‘Drug giants fined $11bn for criminal wrongdoing’ (UK Independent)

    Punishing Health Care Fraud — Is the GSK Settlement Sufficient? (New England Journal of Medicine)

  3. GZ January 17, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    It’s kind of a Catch-22. The more people that get the flu shot, the more flu virus that is around circulating. Evidently people ” shed the virus” after they get the shot and you’re not protected from the virus until 2 weeks after you get it. So even if you get the shot, you could still get the flu from some other well intentioned person that also got the shot.

    Best advice to avoid it:
    Stay out of crowds.
    If you hear someone coughing or sneezing turn and walk the other way (it can be projected up to 3 feet).
    Stay out of the Drugstore–that’s where all the sick people go to get their OTC flu supplies.
    Wash your hand like crazy–don’t touch your face.
    If you do get sick STAY HOME. Your boss may want you to come in, but your co-workers will thank you if you don’t. Contrary to popular belief they can’t fire you for being sick. If they try use the two key phrases “wrongful termination” and ACLU, they’ll know what you mean.

  4. Greg January 17, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

    Coughs and sneezes can travel much further than six feet.

  5. John Tieber January 17, 2013 at 11:19 pm #


    Your first paragraph reminds me of the nonsense the medical authorities use to force unwanted vaccines on school children, a (probably deliberate) distortion of the concept of herd immunity: “Your child must get the vaccine so he or she doesn’t put other children at risk.”

    If the vaccines worked as the pharmaceutical companies (many of which are criminal organizations) claim, then why would it matter to someone vaccinated if someone else was not vaccinated?

  6. John Tieber January 17, 2013 at 11:40 pm #


    I just realized that the first eight words of my comment directly above could easily be misconstrued.

    I meant that I enjoyed and agreed with your comment, particularly the first paragraph, and, in addition, your first paragraph reminds me…

  7. Dan Seibert January 18, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    Yesterday morning, 6:30ish I clicked on SBView but could not connect. So I browsed through some other news sites and got to Google News. As I scrolled down I came to “Health.” Listed there was this article. I clicked on it and a window opened and said the site was down due to increased traffic. Later I went back to Google and the link was gone. Is the Editor aware they were on Google News? Pretty cool, you guys hit the big time.

    • el_smurfo January 18, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

      Google news scans all the local media. It’s the king of the aggregators. My feed has a Goleta CA, Santa Barbara, CA and a California category with nearly every headline I could want. It’s a good resource for those of us who have cut the orange cord.

    • Editor January 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      Yes thank you. We had to apply and Google News has some pretty rigorous guidelines for approval. They liked the amount of original content on Santa Barbara View.

  8. Anon January 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    My understanding is that shedding only happens with the nasal spray method of vaccination. Here is a link from the CDC:

  9. Barbara January 21, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    A homeless guy I know was taken to the hospital this weekend with a terrible flu. I was glad, because he otherwise might not have survived it. He spends his nights away from other homeless people, so at least he wasn’t actively spreading it. And, I am relieved that he can get that care because of taxes I pay.