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Playbill staffers got curious about a health question. In recent weeks, it seemed like all of New York was struggling with the flu, a cold or some other upper respiratory gunk or stomach bug. Since actors, musicians and other theatre personnel are often in tight quarters — and are exposed to thousands of people each week in the audience — do producers take measures to help shield their show folk from illness? Are flu shots, hand sanitizer, vitamin C, zinc tablets, tea and more provided by management, or is it up to the individual?
Flu season has been tougher than usual this winter, with health emergencies declared by the governors of some states, including New York. Losing workers to a bout of flu is disruptive to any industry. But it's particularly disastrous when a bug tears its way through the cast of a stage show. Lose too many players to sickness, and you're in danger of having to cancel the performance. The New York theatre is particularly well guarded against such calamities, however, largely due to the efforts of one man. In 1996, Dr. Barry Kohn, an allergist-immunologist, gave up his private practice and established Physician Volunteers for the Arts.
"I grew up in New Jersey," explained Kohn. "I always went to the theatre, and liked the theatre. Once I made enough money and was comfortable, I wanted to give back in some way. I've been a fortunate guy. It was time to give back."
Physician Volunteers for the Arts is a nonprofit dedicated to free medical care for the theatre community. Part of that care is a flu shot program that Dr. Kohn initiated in 1996, when he started the organization. "I occurred to me that this is an Achilles heel in the theatre," he said. Every month in fall and winter, Kohn begins making the rounds. He arranges times to pay house calls backstage at every Broadway and Off-Broadway show. On those occasions, he administers flu shots not only to the actors, but the backstage crew and the front of house staff. He also visits Off-Broadway theatre companies and other theatre offices. Plus, he spends one day a month at the offices of Actors' Equity, where anyone who shows up can get a flu shot.
"The goal is to create an immunity within the company," he said. "If someone does get the flu, it doesn't run rampant throughout the company. All the company managers and house managers have my name. They call me if someone gets sick. Anyone who calls me, I will make a house visit to their entity." Kohn also makes occasional trips to other cities to provide flu shots to theatre companies working there.
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS gives Kohn's nonprofit an annual grant that pays for the flu vaccine. When he began the program, flu shots were quite cheap: a couple bucks a shot. Since then, the shots have become more expensive.
Producers do not fund the flu shots, but they are supportive of the effort. "Producers had concerns about requiring people to take flu shots" when he began the program, said Kohn. "They're happy we're doing it, but they're not sponsoring it, because they don't want to take medical or legal responsibility."
On some busy days, Kohn can give 400 to 700 flu shots. He has inoculated 4,800 people so far this year alone.
Kohn's efforts notwithstanding, many actors take additional measures to fend off illness. "Staying healthy is a major priority for singers," said Judy McLane of Broadway's Mamma Mia! "For me, I keep a humidifier in my dressing room. In cold and flu season some of the things I do are gargle with salt and/or apple cider vinegar; go for acupuncture every week; take garlic and vitamin C; and, to ward off the bug, take grapefruit seed extract. Steaming is key to keeping the voice healthy."