JEFFERSON CITY — Ben Mitchell is the Missouri Health Department’s new defense against the flu.
In a new series of public service announcements running throughout the state, a voice-over announces that four out of five people wash their hands. Ben Mitchell is that fifth guy, who doesn’t wash his hands, cover his mouth or call in sick to work.
“Washing your hands; covering coughs and sneezes not with your bare hand but rather the crook of your elbow or a Kleenex; and, if you’re feeling bad, just staying home,” said Brian Quinn, department spokesman. “These three things sound simple but are effective for oneself and eliminating the spread.”
As of Feb. 16, the most recent data from the department show that 11,918 flu cases have been reported in Missouri this season, which is double the average of the past five years, Quinn said. Each year 3,000 Missourians die from the flu or cases that advance into pneumonia.
Children and the elderly are especially at risk. Twenty-two children nationwide have so far died from the flu, which is an increase of 12 from last season, said Nancy Cox, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Influenza Division, in a recent press conference.
Although flu shots are still available, health departments are offering them with less frequency, Quinn said. He recommends contacting a physician directly to ensure getting the vaccination.
The CDC is already making plans to change the vaccine for next year, when the organization will replace all three flu strains covered by the vaccine, Cox said.
“The influenza vaccine is not perfect, even when optimally matched,” Cox said.
Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said his district north of Columbia has been hit particularly hard by the flu.
“In northeastern Missouri, there has been a tremendous amount of the flu,” Shoemyer said. “We’ve actually had some school districts that have closed down in response to the absentee level.”
Schools in Knox County, part of Shoemyer’s district, were closed Feb. 6 and 7 because 20 percent of the student body was absent and 18 teachers were sick, Superintendent D.J. Leverton said.
“I had one elementary class that went from 17 (students) to six,” Leverton said.
Knox County used the two days to give custodians time to clean the building with chemicals that kill 99.9 percent of all germs, Leverton said.
“Any time that many students are gone, not a lot of education is going on,” said Leverton, adding the temporary closing was best for the district.
The flu has also hit university students. The Feb. 20 MU softball game versus University of Missouri-Kansas City was rescheduled for April 30 because so many members of the UMKC team had the flu, said MU athletics department spokesman Chad Moller.
University academics have been affected, too.
“I woke up (one) morning and two of my three classes were canceled due to the teachers’ illness,” MU freshman Amy Oslica said. “So I slept in, which was good for me because I’m sick, too.”
In the past week, Missouri went from being one of five states reporting only regional flu activity to one of 49 states reporting widespread activity. Only one state, Florida, is reporting only regional flu activity, according to the CDC’s most recent data.
The Health Department is now most focused on getting the word out through the media, especially with its new “Fifth Guy” campaign that features Mitchell irritating his co-workers in a parody of NBC’s “The Office.” The commercials, produced by the Florida Health Department, were so successful they were released to other states.
“We never tried using humor to spread awareness,” Quinn said. “Disease and illness are very serious topics. Humor doesn’t usually play a role in that.”
The first flu case of the season was reported Dec. 31, 2007, according to the department’s Web site, but Missourians have only just reached the height of the season.
“We”re getting into the worst of it,” Quinn said. “It’s winter. We’ll see cases into the spring.”