It's Fall. Here Come The Germ Detectives!

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

The worst thing about the school-year illnesses is there really isn’t anything you can do about them. Yeah, sure, wash your hands frequently, but the second your kid touches a doorknob or a shared pencil, all is lost. It’s frustrating—as good mothers, we want to solve this problem.

At my son’s school last year, there was a mom who was constantly whispering to me about who “got her son sick.” I called her the Germ Detective, because she apparently believed that in a class of 20 snot-nosed, coughing children, she knew exactly which child was Patient Zero and which kid PZ had infected next, and then how that passed from child to child, finally arriving at her son, who was the only innocent victim in this apparently deliberate biological warfare. She didn’t seem to notice that every single child was a river of mucous, that on some days half the class was out sick, and that one virus rolled into another like waves crashing over our heads, wearing us out and leaving us broken and sniffling, praying for May.

Another mother of my acquaintance, the mom of an only child, also likes to talk about what is evidently a very intricate chain of responsibility for every single cold and flu: “We had a playdate with a school friend last Thursday, and the very next day he started throwing up, and then a week later my son started throwing up, and I was like oh, thanks a lot. I really wish I had known that kid was sick because I would have canceled the playdate.” Never mind that her kid had been to school, the library and other kids’ houses in the intervening week. Never mind that the incubation period for a stomach virus is only a couple of days. Never mind that the other mother obviously didn’t know her kid was sick at the playdate. No, the Germ Detectives have to have someone, anyone, to blame for their kids’ illnesses, because if other parents simply did the right thing, like—what, never going out in public?—well, no one would ever get sick, right?

Um, probably not. Lots of viruses are contagious during the incubation period. Parents sometimes don’t realize their kids are ill until they get a call from the school nurse, a good while after the child has had a chance to smear her germy hands all over the “touch every country” map of the world. People are sometimes contagious after they’re recovered. Basically, the whole school is a soup of germs, and no one could do the right thing enough to prevent the transmission of viruses. Short of putting them in hazmat suits from October to May, kids are going to get sick. Looking for someone to blame is like shaking your fist at the snow falling (“Another storm in the Northeast, in January!? SOMEONE’S GOING TO PAY FOR THIS”).

You know what this reminds me of? The Salem Witch Trials. If some children get sick, there’s probably a woman somewhere who’s responsible, because you know, she wasn’t prescient enough to know that her kid was going to barf during Social Studies. So they burned her at the stake. Our kids? Yeah, they’d never have gotten sick if it weren’t for her, because our kids are pure.

That’s taking germ detecting to an extreme, of course, but it’s the same idea. And yeah, I hate the virus season too. I’m already dreading the endless pieces of dry toast, the laundry, the days off work. But for Pete’s sake, Germ Detectives, put down your deerstalkers and magnifying glasses and chill out. We’re all in this together. Now, let me get my order in for ginger ale and saltines.

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