- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

UPDATED:

Officials said that swine flu has been ruled out as the cause of one of two recent deaths in California, the Associated Press is reporting.

Assistant Chief Ed Winter of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said Tuesday that lab testing is still pending in the case of the second fatality but that swine flu is not now suspected, according to AP.

A Los Angeles County hospital said a 33-year-old Long Beach man brought in on Saturday died from symptoms resembling those of swine flu, county coroner spokesman Craig Harvey told the Los Angeles Times.

The other death was a 45-year-old La Mirada man who died April 22 at a Norwalk hospital.

The Los Angeles Times reported on its Web site that both men’s deaths were reported Monday to the coroner’s office. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could not confirmed the deaths.

The number of U.S. cases increased Tuesday to 64, compared with 40 the day before, according to the CDC.

The agency reported 17 new cases in New York City, four more in Texas and three more in California. The totals are now 45 in New York City, 10 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio. The CDC also reported “a number of hospitalized,” compared with one on Monday, but no deaths so far in the United States.

Health officials in New Jersey said they had identified five probable cases of the swine flu, and Indiana has confirmed one.

Meanwhile, New York City’s health commissioner said “many hundreds” of schoolchildren are sick with suspected swine flu.

A spokeswoman for the New York City health department said 12 students at Public School 177, a special-needs school in Fresh Meadows, have flulike symptoms but none has been confirmed as having swine flu. She could not confirm a reported outbreak at a Catholic school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Officials said they have expected more confirmed cases and severe illnesses as testing continues.

“We are likely to see more presentations of illness and some death,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She also said about 3,500 people every year in the United States die of seasonal flu.

The number of deaths in Mexico as of Tuesday morning was at least 150 with another 1,600 people sickened. The country’s government has closed schools and suspended public events.

Five countries in addition to the United States and Mexico now have confirmed cases: Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Ms. Napolitano went on the morning TV talk shows Tuesday to assure the public that the federal government is prepared for a health crisis and that its border-check policy at airports and land ports “makes sense” and that further steps are not needed.

The State Department has issued a warning to Americans to refrain from “nonessential travel” to Mexico, and has suspended much of its consular business. Several European nations already have issued similar advice against flying to Mexico, and one European Union official, expressing a private opinion, also advised against flying to the United States.

The swine flu threat also became a political, economic and cultural football. A top House Democrat accused senators of forcing him to strip from the stimulus bill millions of dollars in anti-outbreak spending, prices of pork futures and airline stocks took a beating, and opponents of illegal immigration called for closing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The WHO says the Mexican strain seemed to be more virulent than one that swept through a New York prep school, where 28 students who went on spring break to the Mexico resort city of Cancun now have the virus.

At least six Canadians were hospitalized, with symptoms ranging from coughs and fever to dizziness, dehydration and vomiting.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, said the median age of those affected in the United States is 16, with a range in age of 7 to 54.

While officials at the Homeland Security Department and other government agencies are putting more resources at border crossings, sheriffs operating along the border say they don’t have enough resources to deter illegal immigrants who might be carrying the disease into the United States.

Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr. of Zapata County, Texas, said emergency funding is needed to enhance patrols and monitor local jails for any outbreaks.

Sheriff Gonzalez, who is chairman of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, said thousands of students who cross the border daily from Mexico to attend school in the United States should be monitored or stopped until the severity of the flu outbreak can be determined.

A question-and-answer document distributed to Capitol Hill staffers from the Department of Homeland Security said the CDC “has not recommended closing the border at this time nor is [a] mandatory quarantine for those with flu-like symptoms in place.”

“As part of [Customs and Border Protection’s] routine procedures, if someone crossing the border appears ill, they are referred to CDC quarantine station, where they are evaluated and dispositioned,” the Homeland Security document said.

“There is no mandatory quarantining at this time. If a person tests positive for influenza at the quarantine station, a sample is sent to the CDC for confirmation,” the document said.

The document said the department’s officials have positioned assets at various border locations “in the event a pandemic is declared.”

Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican, said “current law needs to be enforced from Brownsville to San Diego, with zero tolerance for illegal crossings, which will protect border communities against every conceivable threat,” including a pandemic.

The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC went a step further, calling on the Obama administration to immediately close the southern border and restrict all inbound air and ground traffic from Mexico.

“The Obama administration’s failure to secure our borders against a possible pandemic is putting American lives at risk at a time when days and hours matter,” said William Gheen, the PAC’s spokesman.

But WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda said the virus’s spread to other countries means that “at this time, containment is not a feasible option.”

Mexico’s health minister warned that the outbreak in his country was entering its most dangerous phase, with numbers of afflicted people growing even in the face of stepped-up warnings.

“We are in the most critical moment of the epidemic. The number of cases will keep rising, so we have to reinforce preventive measures,” Jose Angel Cordova, the health minister, told reporters at a news conference in Mexico City.

Several departments of the U.S. government mobilized to try to halt the spread of the flu virus and to prepare to help the infected.

The Health and Human Services Department has released 11 million treatments of anti-viral drugs, such as Tamiflu, which scientists say may not be as effective against the swine flu as it was against the avian flu a few years ago.

President Obama is using the outbreak to push his plan for investing more federal funds in science and technology research, but said Americans should not be worried about a pandemic.

“This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert, but this is not a cause for alarm,” the president said during a speech at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

He said the CDC is regularly updating federal and local governments and stressed that his team is on the job to make sure “we have the resources we need at our disposal.”

“They know what steps are being taken and what steps they need to take,” he said, adding that his administration will be relying “heavily” on the U.S. scientific and medical community to deal with the problem.

Congress scheduled emergency hearings for this week. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees health issues, will hold a hearing of his panel Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, Ms. Napolitano and Dr. Besser are to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs got so many questions about Mr. Obama’s potential exposure to the swine flu during a recent trip to Mexico that he held up his hands to halt the onslaught.

Photographers who rarely take pictures of the daily briefings took so many photos that Mr. Gibbs’ next words were drowned out by the sound of the camera clicks.

He stressed that White House doctors are 100 percent confident “the president’s health was never in any danger.”

When peppered with more queries, Mr. Gibbs added: “My ears work fine. I will check on the other questions.”

The White House even went to the trouble of releasing a statement from the Mexican Embassy saying that Felipe Solis, who guided Mr. Obama through Mexico’s National Anthropology Museum, died last week “of a preexisting condition and not of swine flu.”

So far, the swine flu has been smaller in scope than the much-feared avian flu. Both strains of flu are H1N1 — a virus that can pass from animal to person and onward via sneezing, coughing and other significant physical contact.

But the crisis has triggered fiscal repercussions: The price of pork bellies futures plunged Monday, even as China, Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines have halted pork imports from Mexico and Southern U.S. states, where most infections have been reported. The CDC insists that people cannot get swine flu by eating pork or pork products.

Investors sold off airline holdings, contributing to overall market downturns.

In a particularly bad year, various strains of the flu can kill up to a half-million people around the world. Scientists say it is unusual for a virus to be so active in the Northern Hemisphere in early spring. Flu season generally spans the winter months, which are just starting in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sara A. Carter, Christina Bellantoni, Joseph Weber and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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