The Upchuck Olympics: Flu News Is Going for the Gold. Plus, an Update: Athletes Succumb, Someone Stole Our Headline!

Communicable Diseases 467 views
Written by Timothy Pfaff

Some days laughter is, if not the best, the most readily available medicine.

The Upchuck Olympics: Flu News Is Going for the Gold. Plus, an Update: Athletes Succumb, Someone Stole Our Headline!

Update, February 16: The story below was written before the Olympics began. We didn’t find it the least funny, but we did hope that the outbreak of norovirus would fizzle. It hasn’t.

To keep it brief, the Los Angeles Times reported on February 15 that cases had risen to 244. Other reports, to the same effect, added that the Olympics staff has blamed the Olympics organizers. The “press” hasn’t been good. It’s hard to top the headline, “Some People Get Medals at the Olympics, Others Get Violently Ill.” (And that's not even the stolen headline. We're not pointing fingers so much as gloating.)

When we wrote the first version of this update, only hours ago, there had not yet been norovirus infections among the competing athletes, a particular concern since they were housed in (obviously) enclosed quarters in Athletes Village. Sadly, BBC now reports that two Swiss freestyle skiers have succumbed to the virus and have now been removed from the facility for treatment and recovery.

No deaths have been reported, in the competition or from the norovirus. But, continuing the spirit of our original post, we couldn’t unread the comment local ski shop owners made to The Guardian: “The Olympics are killing us.” Also, what with there being no deaths at this point, Korean carmakers have seized onthe opportunity to use the venue to promote and demonstrate their new driverless cars. A competition in the next Winter Olympics? Who knows.

Original post:

It’s early days at the Winter Olympics, but already things are topsy-turvier than the athletes barreling down the slopes. On the sidelines, so far it’s North Korea 1/US 0, as U.S. Vice President Pence—dispatched to the games by his master expressly to “keep up the heat” on North Korea—has headed home. It's at least in some measure since Kim Yo-jong, the strikingly self-possessed sister of Kim Jong-un, similarly dispatched if more in an apparent interest in a thaw, has, by virtually all media accounts, “stolen the show.”

If these end up being remembered as the Pence Olympics, it won’t be to the VP’s pleasure. More on that anon.

Mere days before the opening ceremonies, news broke that the South Korean security team was being replaced by the military, because the security team was literally losing it. Enough were afflicted with norovirus, the “winter vomiting flu,” that the entire civilian detail was put in quarantine. In 2018, when word gets out the Korean military is taking over security, gorges rise around the world.

Norovirus, the Mayo Clinic tells us, “can cause the sudden onset of severe vomiting and diarrhea. The virus is highly contagious and commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated during preparation or contaminated surfaces. You can also be infected through close contact with an infected person.” Also, “[I]t occurs most frequently in closed and crowded environments.”

While there is no vaccine for norovirus, the South Korean health authorities are quick—very quick—to point out that outbreaks are “normal” at this time of year, a fact which seems to have slipped by the Olympic Committee—which, looking at global warming, is already seeing winter-Olymic sites literally melting away. Such explanations as are on offer for why it might be worse than usual this year is that the weather is unusually cold this season.

But really, it’s pretty hard to top the Mayo Clinic’s concise descriptors of its causes and risk factors, to wit (verbatim):


“Noroviruses are highly contagious and are shed in the feces of infected humans and animals. Methods of transmission include:

  • Eating contaminated food
  • Drinking contaminated water
  • Touching your hand to your mouth after your hand has been in contact with a contaminated surface or object
  • Being in close contact with a person who has a norovirus infection

“Noroviruses are difficult to wipe out because they can withstand hot and cold temperatures as well as most disinfectants.

“Risk factors

Risk factors for becoming infected with norovirus include:

  • Eating in a place where food is handled with unsanitary procedures
  • Attending preschool or a child care center
  • Living in close quarters, such as in nursing homes
  • Staying in hotels, resorts, cruise ships or other destinations with many people in close quarters
  • Having contact with someone who has norovirus infection”

South Koreans, living in the constant shadow of nuclear conflict, have a reputation for being cool cucumbers at the worst of times. But even they were suppressing alarm at the fact that Pyeongchang, the South Korean “village” where the games are held, was likely to have its resources tested, if not stretched to the breaking point. For a change, poorer than average tickets sales were looking like a good thing.

It must have ben a marketing nightmare. What with the worldwide blackout of knowledge of the Korean peninsula, it could have been assumed that potential fans may have confused Pyeongchang with Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, where, just prior to the opening ceremonies, Big Brother Kim presided over one of the largest military displays in the country’s history—nukes on parade!

Even so, the principal hospitality concerns rapidly changed to the hotels and resorts to which the fans would be more likely to retreat in the extreme cold, thereby crowding enclosed areas. Those worries were topped only by the same concerns in the Athlete’s Village.

Back on the sidelines, further ironies were abounding. Two openly gay American athletes, the first ever to compete in a Winter Olympics as "out" gay men, figure skater Adam Rippon and skier Gus Kenworthy, publicly refused to meet with the virulently homophobic Pence either at the event or after, in Washington, should they bring home the gold or other-metal medals.

Pence has already “shot back” that the men are ill-informed, but as of this writing the matter is no more settled than North-South, or North-U.S., relations. It’s probably not the best time for handshakes on any of a number of grounds anyway.


In our most recent post in our Surviving Cancer section, we promised to hold off on extensive reporting on promising cancer treatments and cures that remain far in the future. We will keep that promise.

But all things taken into account, we admit that our tails wagged a little when we read the news succinctly reported in a headline, “Scientists move closer to a universal flu vaccine,” in the February 2 edition of the online magazine Salon. The accompanying story is here, and we think it’s worth a read.

Back at the ranch

No one but the Vice President is dying to get back to the increasingly deadly American flu epidemic. No less a source than the don’t-rattle-the-markets Fortune on February 10 ran a Bloomberg story subtly headlined “The Flu is Killing Up to 4,000 Americans a Week.”

It quoted Anna Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control (see our earlier blog post for more on that), as saying, in Bloomberg’s words, that “The levels of influenza-like illnesses being reported now are as high as the peak of the swine flu epidemic in 2009, and exceed the last severe seasonal flu outbreak in 2003 when a new strain started circulating.

“’This is a difficult season, and we can’t predict how much longer the severe season will last,’ she said. ‘I wish there was better news, but everything we are looking at is bad news.’”

It’s another article very much worth reading in full.

Not only is help on the way, it’s been here for millennia

Talk about show-stealers. It would be sloppy journalism indeed if we did not add that televangelist Gloria Copeland, said to have “ties” to President Trump via his evangelical advisory board, has decried the need for jabby earthly flu shots because “Jesus is our flu shot.” As quoted on CNN, she said, specifically, that her followers could ward off the flu “by praying and saying ‘I'll never have the flu. I'll never have the flu.’”

Nevermind Fortune, Bloomberg et al., Copeland is on record as saying, “We don’t have a flu season.” In addition to her promise to pray for everyone with flu “symptoms,” Copeland explained:

“We’ve already had our shot: He bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases. That’s what we stand on. And by his stripes, we were healed. I'm asking you Lord, by your supernatural power, to heal them now from the top of their head to the soles of their feet ... Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. He redeemed us from the curse of flu.

"Put words, inoculate yourself with the word of God. He himself bore my sicknesses, carried my diseases, and by his stripes I was healed. I am healed," she added.

At least until the flameout in the White House last Friday, her story was rapidly getting purchase in U.S. news. The CNN cites below are only some of the places you can hear and see, it, and her, for yourself. What with the full-time positions open all over the Trump Administration, it wouldn’t be the surprise of 2018 that Copeland got the nod.

Watch this space.

Sources/Reading: (a good read)

The latest on flu shots:

The latest on U.S. flu season: