- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Federal officials Tuesday warned of a “marathon” swine flu outbreak that will turn deadly, as hundreds of children from an infected New York City school fell ill and more hospitalizations were reported.

“As this moves forward, I fully expect that we will see deaths from this infection,” said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They are seeing many deaths in Mexico, and we are trying to learn more about that and why the situation in Mexico is different here.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed the warning and called it “very likely that we will see more serious presentations of illness and some deaths as we go through this flu cycle.”

“In a normal seasonal influenza cycle, we would anticipate, across the United States, 35,000 deaths,” Ms. Napolitano said. “Of course, this is not a seasonal flu, but I think it would not be unexpected that there will be some more severe illness and some deaths as we proceed forward.”

AirTran Flight 85 from Cancun, Mexico, was held briefly after landing at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport because two male passengers experienced flulike symptoms during the flight.

The men did not have respiratory symptoms consistent with swine flu, so they and the 115 other passengers were released after state and federal health authorities were consulted.

The number of infections in the U.S. grew to 66 confirmed cases from 40 on Monday in New York, #Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Texas and California, and at least five patients have been hospitalized. The growing threat prompted the Obama administration Tuesday to seek $1.5 billion to fight the outbreak.

Also Tuesday, Michael O. Leavitt, who served as health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush, told The Washington Times that the Obama administration had conducted several studies and tests on sealing off the Mexican border to ward off a pandemic.

The team, he said, concluded that such a move would be impractical, ineffective and economically ruinous.

“People jump to the conclusion, ‘Let’s shut the border down and maybe we can keep it out,’” Mr. Leavitt said. “It would require a substantial part of the military to logistically do it, and it would not just be airports, but buses and cars and people who walk across the borders, which are large and porous. And that just doesn’t work.

“It might seem like it would slow the virus down slightly, but we concluded it would not even do that,” Mr. Leavitt told The Times in an interview.

In New York City, Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said “many hundreds” of schoolchildren are sick with what officials suspect is the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. Officials in Los Angeles investigated the deaths of two men, but neither tested positive for the virus.

“This is going to be a marathon,” Ms. Napolitano said.

Mr. Leavitt agreed, saying a pandemic “has to be managed differently than any other disaster.”

“A pandemic will last 12 to 18 months and comes in two or three waves, so it has to be approached differently,” he said. “It’s like a wildfire: If you can catch it while it’s still smoking, you can contain it, but once it starts to spread, it’s difficult to suppress, so the strategy is to keep the people and property out of its way.”

The World Health Organization has not lifted its threat assessment to pandemic levels, but the virus has spread to Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Spain and Britain.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger responded to the growing epidemic by declaring a state of emergency. Jeff Macedo, the governor’s spokesman, said the move permits the California Emergency Management Agency to work with the California Department of Public Health to take measures to prevent the disease from spreading.

Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line on Tuesday suspended stops at Mexican ports over concerns about swine flu. Princess Cruises canceled calls in Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas on Tuesday and diverted its Sapphire Princess from Mexican ports to San Diego and Catalina in California.

The U.S. State Department reiterated its warning that Americans should refrain from “nonessential travel” to Mexico. Services have been suspended at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and at all U.S. consulates throughout the country until May 3.

The virus has not killed anyone in the U.S., but 159 people have died in Mexico and almost 2,500 cases are suspected or confirmed.

President Obama on Tuesday asked congressional leaders to include emergency funding to address the situation in an existing supplemental-appropriations bill.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I’m asking Congress to include in the fiscal year 2009 supplemental budget request that I sent to you earlier this month an amount of $1.5 billion to enhance our nation’s capability to respond to the potential spread of this outbreak,” Mr. Obama said.

“These funds should be provided with maximum flexibility to allow us to address this emerging situation. Among the uses of these funds could be supplementing antiviral stockpiles, developing a vaccine, supporting the monitoring, diagnostic, and public health response capabilities, and assisting international efforts to stem this outbreak,” Mr. Obama said.

Some border-control groups and Rep. Eric Massa, a New York Democrat who serves on the Homeland Security Committee, are calling on the Obama administration to close the southern border to prevent the outbreak from turning into a pandemic.

“The public needs to be aware of the serious threat of swine flu, and we need to close our borders to Mexico immediately and completely until this is resolved,” Mr. Massa said.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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