The 2012-13 flu season has been one of the worst in years, and rates in Virginia were among the highest in the nation when the session convened last month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors in the General Assembly have been called on to help more than the usual number ailing colleagues.
"It was pretty bad the first few weeks," said state Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, one of the doctors. "I helped a few people, and then the word got around that they got better, and then more people came. It's probably about one person a day."
It doesn't help that Virginia's legislative session is among the nation's shortest and most intense. Lawmaking for 8 million people gets crammed into 60 or 45 days, depending on the year, making for lots of early-morning committee meetings and late-night deliberations to wear down immune systems.
"Just like in the Civil War, they would take farm boys off the farm, where they were in their own protected sort of realm, and then would put them in these large congregate areas with, you know, hundreds to thousands of men, and horses, and all of the contamination issues thereinto associated," said state Del. T. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg. "You still see a lot of the same issues when folks are congregating here. When they leave their home settings, all of a sudden they're exposed to a lot of people's germs. You're constantly shaking hands with folks."
Garrett, a retired surgeon and a Civil War medicine buff, has a glass display case in his legislative office filled with 19th-century surgical implements, including knives that seem better suited to cutting steak. He also has a few modern tools on hand for ailing lawmakers and Capitol staff members, who turn to him for medical advice and the occasional prescription.