Top Obama administration officials Wednesday said the southern border will not be closed even if the swine flu reaches pandemic proportions, prompting demands from a Senate panel that tougher inspections be conducted at ports of entry from Mexico where the virus originated.
“Making such a closure has not been merited by the facts,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. “It would have little marginal benefit of containing an outbreak in our own country.”
“The virus doesn’t know when to stop at a border or not,” Ms. Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
The debate came as a Mexican toddler visiting relatives in Texas was diagnosed as having died from the virus Monday, and the outbreak grew to 91 cases in 10 states.
The committee was informed that the earliest a vaccine could be developed would be in September, just before the next flu season.
Ms. Napolitano and Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, interim deputy director for Science and Public Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that season will produce a new wave of infections.
Dr. Schuchat called it a “reasonable question” from committee members on both sides of the political aisle, as to why the administration intends to keep border entries open.
“But we don’t think it’s a good strategy,” Dr. Schuchat said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut independent and committee chairman, said he was “surprised” by the administration’s response and urged the two witnesses to close selected ports if the outbreak does turn into a pandemic.
“If not, then you need to ramp up review of people going back and forth,” Mr. Lieberman said.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the panel’s ranking Republican, criticized past efforts of border officials to prevent patients infected with serious diseases, and questioned why Homeland Security officials at airports and the border are not using new technology that can signal if a traveler has a fever.
Miss Collins also questioned Homeland Security’s use of the word “passive” to describe it’s monitoring at border crossings.
Ms. Napolitano said they should not have used the word “passive,” instead she said “there is a protocol in place on how this is done.”