Yesterday, I saw a man walking down the street wearing a surgical mask. He was not headed into the operating room, nor was he a Michael Jackson impersonator. He was just another addle-brained American who bought into the swine flu panic.

The media deserves much of the blame. The panicky tone of coverage this week has made it seem like we have an epidemic on our hands, that the entire US population is near death, that this was a repeat of the 1918 pandemic. Once again, as with SARS and West Nile Virus and other overblown public health scares, the story has been hyped completely out of proportion.

The truth is that, so far, only one person outside of Mexico has died from swine flu. A few hundred people have come down with it across the US. A few hundred. In a nation of 300 million. Do you know how many people die from the regular flu each year? About 35,000.

Yet the reporting lacks any perspective, and it didn’t help when Vice President Joe Biden — whose entire medical training consists of being treated regularly for foot-in-mouth disease — spouted off about not letting his family into a confined space like a train or a plane. This from a guy who rode the train to and from work in the Senate for three decades and never got sick from his fellow commuters. Idiocy. Just what the airline industry needs, too — an official lack of perspective.

I’ve had the flu, several times. It’s no fun lying in bed, feeling like garbage, wondering how it’s possible for your head to produce your body weight in mucus every hour. But if you’re in relatively good health, you get over it. There’s no reason to go to an already-overcrowded emergency room and take up valuable time and space while heart attack and gunshot victims listen to you moan about that achy feeling in your head. There’s not much the doctor can do for you, anyway. Stay home, where you can’t infect anyone else, and take your favorite over-the-counter medications (mine end with the suffix “-quil”) — which, by the way, didn’t exist in 1918.

Last week, my daughter had a cough that wouldn’t quit, so we kept her home for a few days (it really bugged her, because she loves school, although lying on the couch watching TV all day worked as a consolation prize), because we know that we have a responsibility to the other parents not to send our child into the classroom while she’s spewing germs all over everything. I assumed this was the way all parents handled the situation. We must be unique, though. The Chicago public schools announced yesterday that, beginning Monday, any kid that goes to school with a cough and a fever of over 100 degrees will be sent home.

Beginning Monday? Wasn’t that the policy already? Why does it take the swine flu to put that policy in place? Because people in authority assume we’re idiots who can’t take care of ourselves. Maybe we are. That’s why the President Of The United States went on television this week to remind you to wash your hands. In the mind of the US government, you’re three years old and need to be told everything.

Next thing you know, we’ll get a bulletin from the CDC reminding you to wipe your ass after you take a dump.