Thursday, October 29, 2009

Battling the Flu

If anyone could get vaccinated for H1N1 (swine) flu, you would think it would be my family. I work at the Health Department, for crying out loud. My husband works at the hospital. I'm pregnant. He's got heart disease. We have a preschooler and a one-year-old at home. (That puts us into several of the "priority" groups who are supposed to get first dibs on the vaccine, by the way, for those of you who don't work at the Health Department or the hospital and haven't been exposed to such a barrage of info about this vaccine as we have.)

But most of us still haven't pulled it off. It is not for lack of trying. As soon as I heard vaccine was available, I took my family to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. When we arrived, I was told that they were only immunizing babies, ages 6 months to 3 years-old. So my son was the lucky winner of one H1N1 flu shot. (And he did great with it, by the way. He didn't even cry! Tough kid.) Children under 10 need to get the shot twice, one month apart, so he is still not fully immunized but he is on his way.

I was extremely disappointed that I could not also protect my daughter, but she was not. She was quite relieved to spend the time playing with toys in the lobby rather than being pricked.

For those of you wondering why I didn't call the Health Department first to see if we were all eligible for vaccine, I did. Several times. When I showed up in person, I learned that you cannot call the Health Department anymore. Their phone lines are completely ill-equipped for the barrage of phone calls they have been receiving lately and you can't even get through to their voice mail.

They told me that the best way to find out if they happen to have any vaccine on a given day, and whether they will give it to you, is to check their website: I have bookmarked it and have been checking it regularly.

However, it wasn't through their website that I learned about my next opportunity to try to win some vaccine. That was at work, when I was contacted and asked to inform my constituents that a mass vaccination clinic was taking place last Saturday, from 7 am until 1 pm or until flu vaccine was depleted.

I knew that there was no way such a clinic would stay open until 1 and we would need to get there early. Unfortunately, we also had another unchangeable appointment that same Saturday at 8. We were doomed. We arrived at two different clinics between 8 and 9 and witnessed thousands of people lined up for blocks at both locations. I later learned that they had enough people in line at every location to use up all the vaccine by 7:30 am.

My husband mildly chided me for so enthusiastically sharing this news as requested of me and contributing to the likelihood that too many people would line up in front of us and we wouldn't get the vaccine. I just can't help it! I am so devoted to public health! But then he looked on the bright side and said we must be closer to establishing herd immunity with so many new folks immunized, even if we weren't among the lucky ones. It is so sexy when he speaks to me in public health jargon. I feel so understood.

In spite of our disappointment at the Saturday clinic, on Monday my husband came home with good news. Finally, the hospital would be getting vaccines for its employees. My hubby could get the vaccine on Wednesday and we would all be spared the risk of him sharing what increasing numbers of people were exposing him to at the hospital.

However, Tuesday evening, he started to feel aches and pains and exhaustion. With his myriad of health problems, this isn't totally unusual, but when it got worse through the night, and these symptoms were compounded with a fever, chills and soar throat by morning, he got an appointment with his doctor.

Sure enough, turns out that my husband is getting immunized the hard way. We are following most of the guidelines to avoid him spreading the flu to everyone else, with one important exception. According to guidelines, a pregnant woman should not be the primary caregiver of a person sick with H1N1. Okay, who should I delegate that to, the preschooler or the toddler?

But otherwise, we are being very good. He is currently quarantined to our house. Because he is a health care worker, he will not return to work for at least seven days (and he is a "contract" employee who does not receive sick leave). I do get sick leave, and I am using it to stay at home so I can keep track of the kids and be available should he take a turn for the worse. When he needs to leave the bedroom, he wears a mask and I wear one if I have to enter it. We are consuming lots of Lysol spray, wipes and hand sanitizer. I am sleeping in the guest room. Just in time, a family friend (God bless him) helped us figure out how to fix that broken bathroom that had been giving us grief for so long, just a couple weeks ago. So we now have two bathrooms again and we have assigned one to my husband and the other to the rest of us.

Because of his "high-risk" status as a heart disease patient, my husband has been put on Tamiflu, which lessens the severity of the flu and shortens its duration (not that it has been a picnic for him anyway). Tamiflu can also be used to prevent flu symptoms in a person who has been exposed but not fallen ill, and since I am pregnant, I have been placed on it, too. You have to take just as much for prevention as for treatment, but you take half as much daily so I will be taking it for twice as many days as my husband takes it.

Now that I have everyone up-to-date on the status of my household, it's time for

My Public Health Geek Notes on H1N1 Flu Season:

  • They are making lots of vaccine. Theoretically, there is going to be more than enough by the time all of it is done for everyone to get the darn stuff, regardless of "priority." The problem is that it is just not all "done" yet. It takes six months to make (like Hermione's transformation potion in Harry Potter). Keep looking out for your opportunity to win some. It gets finished in spurts.
  • I don't believe the people who are calling this vaccine too new, untested or risky. The vaccine is made the same way as seasonal flu vaccine and has the same risks and benefits. It is only "new" in the sense that it targets a different strain of flu virus than previous seasonal flu vaccines. However, the seasonal flu vaccine targets different strains every year as well and in future years H1N1 may be rolled into one seasonal flu shot. Last year, H1N1 flu began after the usual seasonal flu shot was already in preparation stages and so officials decided to make a separate, additional vaccine. If you have a bad reaction to seasonal flu vaccine, you should not get the H1N1 vaccine either. If you have had no problem with seasonal flu shots in the past, you should not have a problem with H1N1 vaccine.
  • Getting the vaccine is not just for your own benefit. For most people, the flu manifests itself as an inconvenient and uncomfortable illness that goes away on its own. Many people are willing to take the risk of getting sick since it is unlikely to be serious for them. However, even before you know you are sick, you can pass the virus to someone else for whom the flu is deadly.
  • If you want Tamiflu, you need to contact your doctor and get a prescription within the first 48 hours of your flu. The same is true if you are using it for prevention: it only works if you start taking it within 48 hours of your exposure.
  • That being said, not everyone should get Tamiflu. If you do not have any specific risk factors, such as a chronic disease, pregnancy, or youth, and your case of the flu is mild, you do not need Tamiflu. In this case, it is better to care for yourself at home and avoid spreading the flu to poor health care workers like my husband who have been unable to get the vaccine. This also saves yourself from having to buy a very pricey medication.
  • If you can't get the vaccine, and you do get the flu, don't panic. In spite of what it may seem, because deaths from H1N1 flu get so much press, most people can get through it without danger. The biggest difference between this version of the flu and other versions is that more people are susceptible to catching it because it is new and we do not have any immunity.

I remember well my experience with the flu as a junior in college: it struck the day of my biology final. I found myself re-reading the questions 2 or 3 times because I couldn't think straight. My grade suffered accordingly. That night was the last performance of a musical I was in, "The Forgotten Carols." I was devastated not to be able to sing and my director was furious. Then I went home for Christmas vacation and spent the first week of it suffering in bed instead of celebrating. It is a bad memory and I really and truly hope that I don't go through that again, but I never even remotely felt that my life was in danger. I was miserable, but I knew that in the end I would be fine. And I was.

My son got the flu when he was two months old. Newborns cannot be immunized, but I did my part to boost his immunity by immunizing myself while I was pregnant with him and breastfeeding him after he was born. The flu manifested itself as a fever. And nothing else. He was a happy, healthy baby who happened to have a high temperature. I wouldn't have even known it was the flu if I hadn't gone to the doctor and had him tested.

So for all of you unlucky people out there who do get the flu, I wish you a case that mild. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Office Upgrade

I would like to take a moment to memorialize the itsy bitsy cubicles that have housed me for most of my career.

I recently moved to a new office with real walls, a door, visitor seating and a separate storage room.
For a health department employee, this is pretty cool. Until recently, I worked with most of my colleagues at a building subdivided into dark gray, smaller-than-fire-code-permits cubes.  Really, as if cubicles weren't depressing enough, who chose that color?  There was no storage space there, so co-workers would sneak storage into the crevices of your cube when you weren't looking.  If you were foolish enough to go on maternity leave—I did it twice—you would have to dig to get back to your desk when you returned.

Prior to my health department gig, I worked as a research assistant. As you can probably guess by the lofty title "assistant," I was pretty low on the totem pole there. Every time they would get a new PhD to work on some new grant, he/she would envy my space and I would get booted to some less desirable space. Finally, the other assistants and I were sharing a hot, dark, tiny room so awful I was confident no one smart enough to get a PhD would want it. Imagine my shock when I was kicked out of that pitiful excuse for a room as well! No, no one wanted that room, but the newest PhD did envy the server room and I was booted so the server could live in my place.

I did not earn my new office with a promotion. The Health Department recently "reorganized" and for undisclosed reasons, moved my team to a different bureau located at this new building. (I think the reasons are undisclosed because the decision involved drawing straws, or perhaps rock-paper-scissors.)

The government has guidelines for how big your office should be, based on your title. (No, need is not considered.) My new office exceeds my official worthiness in size. I get it because the building was purchased with rooms already built in it and it would have been too expensive to remodel.

There have been some downsides to the move. As I had expected, I have missed lunches with my friends at the old building or my mom, who volunteered down the street from it.  Of course, meetings are infinitely less convenient now that most of my co-workers are across town. Less expected, for my first couple weeks at the new locale, I was unable to print, fax, copy, update my website or do a myriad of other typical office errands. I feel that I have really bonded with tech support during this transition, as we have spent so much time together.  I can now do more of these things than before, but tech support and I are not through hanging out yet.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Weekend with Mom and Sisters

Hooray for my sis-in-law (and recently retired amazing health intern/slave) whose camera (unlike mine) is not broken and who took the initiative to blog about our recent trip.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Welcome, Hey You: It's Boys 2-Girls 1

The poor kid! We'll have to name him "Hey You" because we don't have a boy name in mind. When the tech turned the camera on, it looked as if baby Hey You was sitting in it and his gender was obvious. She hadn't asked us if we wanted to know and quickly redirected the camera, but both Mommy and Daddy saw it.

Sister's reaction: "But I wanted a girl baby! I will still like him, though."