Flu season is not as bad this year, experts are reporting. Usually 3 to 4 percent of Minnesotans are shivering with the grippe; this year it's about 1 percent.

"Obviously, we can let down our guard now," said one expert. "Go ahead and cough in your hand instead of your elbow, and please, enough with the hand sanitizer already. It's just water and cornstarch anyway, with a little vodka to make it sting."

Well, no. We mustn't let our guard down. Flu peaks in February, feasting on our winter-weary immune systems, and it's not too late to get a shot. But why aren't we sicker? Three possibilities:

• Because people have been too sick with this year's miserable cold to notice they had the flu. A flu would be an improvement. My cold turned into Walking Pneumonia, which advanced to Jogging Pneumonia and then became full-fledged Sprinting Pneumonia -- I was in St. Cloud before the antibiotics kicked in -- and the only way I would have noticed the flu would be if it turned my skin plaid.

• Because we are completely paranoid. Since they started warning us about big-bad-bird flu, everyone regards the public sphere as a pullulating petri dish. If there was a hand-sanitizer pump next to the hand-sanitizer pump we'd use it, just in case we got something from the first one.

Notice how people behave in public restrooms these days? If there aren't any paper towels, people open the door with their elbows. This is just the sort of evolutionary pressure that will give us telekinetic power in a few generations. We will open doors with our minds. And then we will think of a container of Purell, just to be safe.

• Because there's something else we never considered. It's obvious now. The flu is spread by snow.

It's not because people are packed indoors in the winter -- do offices move to the parking lot in June? No. Flu is brought here by Canadian air masses and dumped on our heads in the form of snow, which we inhale.

So forget about washing your hands. Just wear gloves and a scarf. But remember, the flu mutates annually, so don't use the same mittens you had last year. I'm going with a pair of Italian leather driving gloves myself, and will submit the bill to our company's health plan.

There's a co-pay, of course. Two fingers.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858