- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

The federal government declared a public health emergency Sunday to deal with the emerging new swine flu, much like the government does to prepare for approaching hurricanes.

U.S. officials have reported 20 cases of swine flu in five states so far, with the latest in Ohio and New York. Unlike in Mexico, where the same strain appears to be killing dozens of people, cases in the United State have been mild — and federal health authorities can’t yet explain why.

“As we continue to look for cases, we are going to see a broader spectrum of disease,” predicted Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re going to see more severe disease in this country.”

At a White House news conference, Dr. Besser and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sought to assure Americans that health officials are taking all appropriate steps to minimize the impact of the outbreak.

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Top among those is declaring the public health emergency. As part of that, Ms. Napolitano said, roughly 12 million doses of the drug Tamiflu will be moved from a federal stockpile to places where states can get their share quickly if they decide they need it. Priority will be given to the five states with known cases so far: California, Texas, New York, Ohio and Kansas.

Ms. Napolitano called the emergency declaration standard operating procedure — one was declared recently for the inauguration and for flooding. She urged people to think of it as a “declaration of emergency preparedness.”

“Really, that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re preparing in an environment where we really don’t know ultimately what the size of seriousness of this outbreak is going to be.”

Ms. Napolitano also said that U.S. officials will begin asking travelers about illness if they are entering the country from areas with confirmed swine flu cases.

Passengers won’t be barred from getting into the United States, but they could be referred for further testing.

Ms. Napolitano characterized the step as more “passive surveillance,” saying airline workers certainly could tell people they should not fly if ill.

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