Nov. 3, 2009— -- 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.
States Taking Special Measures to Protect Voters
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.
"We also have done a fairly large campaign about educating the voters – how to vote absentee, what are the qualifications so that that they wouldn't even have to come into the polling places on election day, should they so choose," Lee told ABC News.
In Wisconsin, voters may see a collection of medical masks, latex gloves, and signs reminding them of the flu pandemic as they interact with poll workers.
Wisconsin's elections division is "requiring thorough cleaning of their voting equipment and materials following contact by voters, the election inspectors are using alcohol-based wipes to clean marking pens and pencils and they are also spacing voters three feet apart in line at the polls to help as well," according to Beech.
In Maine, Governor John Baldacci has declared a civil emergency to help the state respond to widespread cases of H1N1, and in the Maine town of Lewiston, people with flu-like symptoms have been asked to stay away from polling places today.
Flu Concerns Keep Ill Voters Away From Polls
"Due to the recent outbreak in the city, we are working to put into place preventative measures for the protection of everyone who will be at the polls," said Lewiston's coordinator for H1N1 prevention, Assistant Fire Chief George Merrill, in a statement.
"We are trying to be cautious and prevent the spread of illness to the election workers and fellow voters of Lewiston," Merrill advised.
Lewiston has asked sick voters to use absentee ballots, which can be turned in by mail or dropped off by someone on the voter's behalf up until Saturday.
Lewiston, Maine, is also the home to Bates College where nearly 15 percent of the student body has had H1N1 symptoms this fall.
Maine voters will cast ballots today which will determine whether or not the state's gay marriage law, which passed the legislature last spring, will stand or be tossed out.
To stay healthy, voters today can wash their hands frequently with soap and water or, in the absence of hand-washing facilities, use alcohol-based sanitizers. Voters can also avoid touching their eyes, mouth or nose, which are common ways germs are spread.