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August 23, 2014

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The flu; who knew?

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Everybody is talking about the flu. Never have I seen so many people trying to open doorknobs with their elbows. “Epidemic spurs rush to hospitals,” announced the New York Post under a “Flu York” front-page headline. A financial website offered a list of undervalued stocks in the funeral service industry. The mayor of Boston declared a public health emergency. Google Flu Trends painted a map of the country in deep red and inspired a raft of terrifying predictions. (“Outbreak could be the worst on record.”)

It’s hard to tell the extent of a flu outbreak because most of the victims just snivel away unhappily in the privacy of their own homes. The Google site solves this problem by tracking the number of times people search for flu-related terms online. Does this make sense to you, people? If we could determine what was going on in the world by the most popular searches, wouldn’t the universe be run by mischievous kittens and Kate Middleton?

OK, that is not a sophisticated thought — Google has an algorithm. But I still wonder if the number of recent searches on the subject of flu isn’t related to the number of recent news conferences about flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls Google Flu Trends “a useful tool” that may be “subject to the perturbations of media attention.”

It’s hard for the media, or the elected officials who are currently terrifying their constituents with dire flu warnings, to know where to draw the line between encouraging preparedness and scaring the public out of its wits. The flu is incredibly debilitating, especially this year because it’s showing up at the same time as a stomach virus that features diarrhea and projectile vomiting. Truly, you only need to mention “projectile vomiting” once to get our attention. And flu can be dangerous for some people, like the frail elderly.

But we do go through this every winter.

“This is the worst flu season we’ve seen since 2009,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the guy who declared the public health emergency.

Stop there. While 2009 was a very bad year for flu, worst-in-four-years doesn’t sound quite as dire as worst-on-record.

“We have an epidemic of flu every year,” said the New York City health commissioner, Thomas Farley. If there are alarming headlines, he added, it’s because public officials are “trying to get out the message to get your vaccine.” In a phone interview, Farley explained that the city declares an epidemic when more than 5 percent of the people going to emergency rooms are complaining of flu symptoms, which is unusual only in the sense that it doesn’t happen in warm weather. He also managed to work “get your vaccine” into virtually every sentence.

Yes! Get a flu shot, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who received one Thursday, along with a lollipop. This was to set a good example. Although honestly, that was sort of late in the game, don’t you think? You’d like to believe the governor of one of the most populous states in the nation would have thought about flu protection in November.

The CDC, which measures epidemics in a different way, also agrees we’re in one. But officials there don’t seem all that worried, beyond the fact that when you’re the Centers for Disease Control, you’re always worried. “The bottom line: It’s flu season,” said the director, Thomas Frieden.

Maybe the national uber-angst is because the past two years were really light ones for flu, and we’ve forgotten what it feels like. Also, it’s possible that we’re talking about it more because there isn’t all that much going on. In other Januaries, we might have been anticipating the actions of the new Congress. This year, we know in advance that there won’t be any.

This brings me to my theory about how to calm the flu panic. We can pin everything on John Boehner, the speaker of the House.

Think about it. One of the worst side-effects of illness is the feeling of a lack of control. Your symptoms seem to descend out of nowhere. Picking somebody to hold responsible gives a little more sense of order to the universe.

“Nothing will make you feel better like finding somebody to blame,” says a new Facebook app called “Help, My Friend Gave Me the Flu.” That app, which is sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, lets you prowl through the social network looking for which of your acquaintances got symptoms before you did.

This sounds like a terrible idea — you don’t want to ruin friendships over a transient ailment. Boehner, on the other hand, is somebody you have never met. And the average case of the flu, no matter how unpleasant, is not as bad as two or three more “fiscal cliffs.”

Plus, so many people are angry at Boehner already that he would never notice a few million more.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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