By DAVID FITZGERALD - dfitzgerald@nwherald.com

Politics in the time of swine flu

The H1N1 virus might have found its newest victim – political campaigning.

Candidates are known for shaking hands and kissing babies, but some are changing the way they get out the vote to keep themselves – and the public – healthy as primary campaign season kicks off.

But handshaking matters, especially in local campaigns, said Matthew Streb, a political science assistant professor at Northern Illinois University.

“It’s not just the handshake, but it’s the interaction between the voter and the candidate that is important,” Streb said. “The most effective way to motivate people to vote is to go door-to-door.”

In doing so, however, candidates can carry germs from one house, to every other house on the block, said Debra Quackenbush, a spokeswoman for the McHenry County Health Department.

“That is our custom, our tradition, to go down the street and shake people’s hands,” Quackenbush said. “But you can greet people without shaking someone’s hand.”

If hands are shaken, Quac­ken­bush said both the candi­dates and John Q. Voter need­ed to take precautions – wash or sanitize their hands and don’t touch their faces.

Many candidates are hitting the cul-de-sacs armed with hand sanitizer this campaign season, but some are passing on pressing the flesh and others even forgoing knocking on doors for now.

“People need to be very cognizant that this is a serious flu,” said McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, who is running for re-election for the board’s second district. “One of the worst things you can do is go door to door.”

Koehler said he often was out in public collecting signatures to appear on the ballot, but that was before the flu season got off to a roaring – and even deadly – start.

“The bottom line is this is a more severe flu,” Koehler said. “People need to be smart about it.”

As the assistant to the regional school superintendent, Joe Williams said on some days he came into contact with thousands of children, who are at a higher risk of getting swine flu. On the campaign trail for the regional superintendent job, Williams said he took many of the same precautions.

“I’m shaking a lot of hands and get some high fives, too,” Williams said. “But I’m using a lot of hand sanitizer.”

For 12 hours every weekend, Donna Kurtz, a McHenry County Board District 2 hopeful, goes door-to-door. She said she took precautions to make sure her message, and not the H1N1 virus, was all that she spread.

“I carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with me,” she said. “When I’m done shaking hands, I’ll put it on and try to get under my finger nails.”

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