Biden: Stay Off Subways During Swine Flu Panic

World Health body raises alert to level 5, one notch short of full pandemic

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    AP
    Vice president Joe Biden said today he would tell his family members not to use subways in the U.S. and implied schools should be shuttered.

    Vice president Joe Biden said Thursday he would tell his family members not to use subways in the U.S. and implied schools should be shuttered as the swine flu outbreak spread to 16 states. His remarks quickly caused a stir, drawing a rebuke from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and later leading the White House to apologize.

    The uproar began when Biden appeared on NBC's "Today" show and said he would advise against riding the subway or taking commercial flights and implied schools should be shuttered amid confirmation of the first swine-flu relation death in the U.S.

    "I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said when Matt Lauer asked whether he would advise family members to use public transportation.

    "I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation suggesting they ride the subway. " 

    The vice president also implied that schools should be closed as the threat of swine flu increases.

    "If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or a closed container or closed car or closed classroom it's a different thing." 

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    About two hours after the interview, Biden's office issued a statement attempting to clarify the vice president's remarks.

    "The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving all Americans: That they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week," Biden's spokeswoman, Elizabeth Alexander, said in a statement.

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    White House press secretary Robert Gibbs apologized for Biden's remarks, saying the vice president misspoke.

    Earlier, Mayor Bloomberg, who often rides the subway in New York, said riding the mass transit poses no additional risks in the city with the greatest number of confirmed swine flu cases.

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    "The bottom line is I feel perfectly safe on the subway," the mayor said today.

    "I took the subway here. I take the subway every day," Bloomberg said. "I think what's clear is the flu does not seem to be taking over the city so there's no evidence that taking the subway ... would increase dramatically the probability." 

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    "Today" show co-host Meredith Vieira and NBC's Chuck Todd discussed Biden's statement after he made the remarks, wondering if the vice president really had intended to caution the American public to stay off public transportation and airplanes. They noted his comments seemed to contradict public statements by other high-ranked White House officials.

    The White House is concerned the vice president's remarks create a panic that causes people to avoid public transportation, Todd later reported.

    American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith didn't comment directly on Biden's interview but told the Associated Press that advising people not to fly is "fear mongering." 

    "To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad brush stroke bordering on fear mongering," Smith said. "The facts of the situation at this stage anyway certainly don't support that." 

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    The controversy came as a member of the U.S. delegation that helped prepare Energy Secretary Steven Chu's trip to Mexico began exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and three members aide's family tested probable for the swine flu. Chu has not experienced any symptoms, the White House press secretary said.

    Meanwhile, dozens of Marines in California were confined Wednesday after one came down with the disease. Some 100 schools were closed, and more might need to be shut down temporarily.

    The Obama administration said it was aginst closing the U.S.-Mexico border as the number of swine flu cases in the States passed 100 and crossed into 15 states.

    The Geneva-based World Health Organization sounded its own ominous alarm, raising its alert level to one notch below a full-fledged global pandemic. Said WHO Director General Margaret Chan: "It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic."

    EU health ministers planned emergency talks Thursday in Luxembourg to coordinate national efforts in preventing the spread of swine flu in Europe. Already Britain, Spain, Austria, Germany and Switzerland have confirmed cases of the disease, which is blamed for over 150 deaths and 2,400 infections in Mexico. In a televised address late Wednesday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon asked his countrymen to literally stay in their homes between May 1 and May 5. Asia, so far, has escaped infection though South Korea says it has one probable case, with final test results still coming.

    The CDC confirmed 109 cases Thursday, and state officials confirm 21 more. They are in New York, Texas, California, South Carolina and scattered cases in Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado, Georgia and Maine.

    State officials in Maine said laboratory tests had confirmed three cases in that state, not yet included in the CDC count.

    Also, Illinois officials cited 41 "likely cases," most of them in the Chicago area, and three schools were shut down. Washington state health officials reported six probable cases, and Maryland health officials are awaiting lab tests to confirm six likely cases.

    And the Pentagon said a Marine at the Twentynine Palms base in California had been confirmed to be ill with swine flu and was isolated, along with his roommate. A Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, Maj. David Nevers, said the sick Marine was doing well and his condition continued to improve. Nevers said about 30 others who had been in contact with the sick Marine would be held apart for five days as well as to see if they show symptoms.

    In Mexico, where the flu is believed to have originated, officials said Wednesday that the disease was now suspected in 168 deaths, and nearly 2,500 illnesses

    The first death in the United States from the flu was a Mexico City toddler who traveled to Texas with his family to visit relatives.

    Texas' health director, Dr. David Lakey, told a news conference that it was "highly likely" that the boy contracted the disease in Mexico before his trip to the U.S.

    Officials in Brownsville were trying to trace his family's trip to find out how long they were in the area, who they visited and how many people were in the group, said Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos.

    The boy, who was 23 months old, had "underlying health issues" before he flew to Matamoros, Mexico, on April 4 and crossed into Brownsville to visit relatives, state health officials said.

    He developed flu symptoms four days later and was taken to a Brownsville hospital April 13 and transferred the following day to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, where he died Monday night.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday confirmed that he had been infected with the swine flu virus. The cause of the death was pneumonia caused by the virus, Cascos said.

    Texas called off all public high school athletic and academic competitions at least until May 11 due to the outbreak.

    Despite calls from many U.S. lawmakers for tightening controls over the Mexico-US border, Obama and his deputies ruled out that option.

    At a prime-time news conference, Obama said health officials weren't recommending closing the border with Mexico.

    That, he said, "would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States."

    Instead, Obama said, his administration had ramped up screening efforts and made sure needed medical supplies were on hand.

    "The key now is to just make sure we are maintaining great vigilance, that everybody responds appropriately when cases do come up," he said. "And individual families start taking very sensible precautions that can make a huge difference."

    Earlier, Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said closing the borders was not warranted.

    She said closing borders or U.S. ports would have enormous adverse economic consequences and would have "no impact or very little" to help stop the spread of the virus.

    "This virus is already in the United States. Any containment theory ... is really moot at this time," Napolitano said.

    In fact, customs agents have delayed 49 people at the border because of flulike symptoms, and 41 have been cleared so far. Test results on the other eight were not complete.

    Still, a number of American universities are calling off faculty and student travel to Mexico, and at least one is evacuating students from the country. The list includes campuses from Western Illinois to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Tulane University in Louisiana.

    Laboratory testing showed the new virus was treatable by the anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, and the first shipments from a federal stockpile arrived Wednesday in New York City and several other locations. The government was shipping to states enough medication to treat 11 million people as a precaution. All states should get their share by May 3.

    No shortages had been reported — there was plenty in regular pharmacies, federal health officials said.

    Scientists were racing to prepare the key ingredient to make a vaccine -- if it's ultimately needed. But it will take several months before the first pilot lots begin required human testing to ensure the vaccine is safe and effective. If all goes well, broader production could start in the fall.

    "We think 600 million doses is achievable in a six-month time frame" from that fall start, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Craig Vanderwagen told lawmakers.

    The disease is not spread by eating pork and U.S. officials appeared to go out of their way on Wednesday to not call the strain "swine flu." Obama called the bug the "H1N1 virus," and other administration officials followed his lead.

    "The disease is not a food-borne illness," Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, CDC's interim science and public health deputy direct, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

    She said the strain is particularly worrisome because "it's a virus that hasn't been around before. The general population doesn't have immunity from it."