U.S. Declares ‘Public Health Emergency'

The U.S. is declaring a public health emergency to deal with the emerging new swine flu.

The precautionary step doesn't signal a greater threat to Americans. But it allows the federal and state governments easier access to flu tests and medications.

Officials reports 20 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, 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.

Top among those is declaring the public health emergency. As part of that, Napolitano said roughly 12 million doses of the drug Tamiflu will be moved from a federal stockpile to places where states can quickly get their share 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.

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."

Classes and student activities have been canceled at a New York City private school where eight students may have come down with swine flu.

St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens will be closed on Monday and Tuesday. The school posted the announcement on its Web site Sunday.

City health officials say preliminary tests of samples taken from sick students' noses and throats confirmed that at least eight had a non-human strain of influenza type A, indicating probable cases of swine flu. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was conducting tests to make a definitive determination.

In Mexico, health officials say a strain of swine flu has killed up to 81 people and sickened more than 1,000.

Officials have also confirmed one case of swine flu in California as one of 11 around the country.

The latest California case is a 35-year-old woman from Imperial County who was hospitalized earlier this month.  It's unknown how she came down with the swine flu but she has recovered.

To date, four other cases of swine flu have also been reported in San Diego County.

  • A  7-year-old male (Friday)
  • A 54-year-old male and his 16-year-old daughter (Thursday)
  • A 10-year-old male (Tuesday)

U.S. officials will begin asking travelers about illness if they're entering the country from areas with confirmed swine flu.

Passengers won't be barred from getting into the United States. But they could be referred for further testing.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano characterized the step as more "passive surveillance," saying airline workers certainly could tell people they shouldn't fly if ill.  She spoke at a White House news conference Sunday.

At Lindbergh Field, there are currently no travel restrictions against traveling to Mexico, but people are urged to closely monitor their health once they return.

“It's kind of terrible, kind of scary, I don't know but we already have plans," William Bravo said.

The Bravo family is heading to Guadalajara for a two-week vacation.  The deadly swine flu outbreak in Mexico City isn't stopping them but it is on their minds.  

" I said ‘oh my God, now we’re going to Mexico at this time?’”  Betty Bravo said.

At least two airlines are letting passengers headed to Mexico City change their flights without penalty.

San Diego County health officials say travelers "should" keep their plans but are urged to take precautions to avoid getting sick.  Signs are now posted throughout the airport reminding passengers to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough.  

"This virus is out there just like the seasonal flu,” San Diego County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten, M.D. said.  “The seasonal flu is out there and we still do everything that we normally do so we're not asking people to change their daily habits we're just asking them to be more cautious."

 But "unlike" the seasonal flu, the swine flu is a unique strain. There is no vaccine and few people have the antibodies to fight the virus.

International health experts say right now, the Swine flu is spreading at a pace they can't control.

"We cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological or clinical evidence, whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic," World Health Organization spokesperson Margaret Chan said.

Symptoms of the Swine flu are similar to the seasonal flu; they include fever, sore throat, muscle aches and vomiting.  Anyone with these symptoms should avoid hospitals and other crowded areas and call their doctor right away.

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