As voters go to the polls in a handful of states and cities this Election Day, local officials across the country are rolling out a variety of measures to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus at polling locations.
November elections take place during the rise of the traditional flu season, but this year, with the H1N1 strain now considered widespread in 48 states by the Centers for Disease Control, election boards are offering creative ways to help voters minimize their risk of getting sick after casting their ballots.
Today, polling places will be used by millions of voters who'll stand in close contact and share items ranging from pens to public voting machines. This level of contact in closed spaces is exactly the type of interaction doctors and the CDC have suggested people avoid to lessen their chances of catching the H1N1 strain of the flu.
According to the CDC, the numbers of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are already above expected levels for this time of year and the numbers continue to rise. With access to H1N1 vaccines being prioritized for at-risk groups, most will not be vaccinated when they show up to vote today.
The Election Assistance Commission was created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to distribute federal election aid to states, and this year they're helping distribute H1N1 prevention info. The EAC asked all 50 states to submit flu contingency plans outlining how they'll lessen the threat of H1N1 transmission at their polling places.
"Election officials really always want to be prepared for anything," said EAC Commissioner Gineen Bresso Beech. "When H1N1 became a known issue on the forefront, they thought, 'well, if people do come down with the flu, or H1N1, how does that impact voting?'"
States "came up with contingency plans to put in place ahead of time so that they can be sure that everybody has access to the polls and everyone who wants to get out and vote has that option."
Virginians will cast ballots today for their new governor in a nationally-covered race between Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell. But Virginia's State Board of Elections has another worry aside from voting – H1N1.
Virginia's manager for election conformity, Susan Lee, consulted with the state's health department and the CDC to come up with recommended polling guidelines to help keep Virginians healthy.
"This year, we wanted to do everything we could to minimize the spread of the germ because we don't want someone to not vote because they are afraid to be in a public place," said Lee.
More than 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer have been shipped out across the commonwealth for people to use both before and after entering the voting booth.
"In Virginia, the majority of our precincts have touch-voting equipment; you have to touch your finger to select the candidate. We're giving them a q-tip or a coffee stirrer so they can use that to touch the screen in lieu of their fingers," Lee said. "We're trying to keep the germs from spreading from one place to another."
Virginia election officials have also been asked to regularly clean voting areas with disinfectant and local voting locations recruited extra workers to replace any staff that might have contracted H1N1 before Election Day.