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The business of tracking flu outbreaks

  • (r to l) Sensory analysts Maja Baker, Rochelle Szmaciarz, Sandy Zacharay and Ana Rodriquez taste tea varietals at Traditional Medicinals in Graton on Wednesday, January 15, 2013.
    (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Details about the spread of the flu around the country may strike fear into the hearts of public health officers.

But at Traditional Medicinals, the Sebastopol tea company, knowing where the flu is flaring triggers a different response: a rush to ensure that store shelves are stocked with soothing tea leaves.

For a company with $50 million in annual revenues that sells 80 percent of its product during the six-month cold and flu season, forecasting consumer demand is increasingly important, said Blair Kellison, CEO of Traditional Medicinals.

That's the main job of Frank Hinton, inside sales and planning manager at Traditional Medicinals. During flu season, he spends a good chunk of his day checking on public health statistics and learning where in the country Internet users are searching for all those icky words related to the flu.

Maps compiled by the Centers for Disease Control showing the incidence of flu reports have grown increasingly bleak over the past few weeks, with widespread flu blanketing most of the country.

"We are in the midst of it," Hinton said, looking at a color-coded map of the United States blaring bright orange to indicate widespread reports of the flu. "It's heavy."

The prevalence of freely available data online has been a boon to companies like Traditional Medicinals, which used to rely on historic sales data, trade journals, associations and word of mouth in its attempt to create a crystal ball. Now it's added data from the CDC, Google, WebMD and Kleenex to its predictive modeling.

"As a company, we're putting a lot of resources behind getting information," Hinton said. "If there's pretty vibrant cold and flu activity in the South, we can look at our southern distribution centers, check how they're doing, see if they need to order more."

"You could really be the hero or the goat," Hinton added about his role as forecaster. "Last year, the forecast at the end of the year was dead-on, and that was in a big year."

Just type "google flu" into a search engine and you'll find your way to Google Flu Trends, a product that has maps and charts outlining the hot spots around the country.

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