The number of states with confirmed cases of swine flu expanded Thursday, with 13 states reporting a total of 114 cases. As the virus spreads, so does awareness and the potential for overreaction. School districts and universities in particular are wrestling with this question: to close or not to close?
At the University of Delaware, officials have taken a number of steps that illustrate the dilemma schools are facing.
The university has confirmed that four students have swine flu. It canceled two public events scheduled for Thursday: a talk by journalist Gwen Ifill and a concert by rapper Young Jeezy. The school's public health center opened a call center, and the state health department moved to help the university screen students with flulike symptoms.
Students entering the school's health centers were urged to don surgical masks. Those with symptoms were then sent back home, or to their dorms, and urged to "self-isolate." One student pronounced the measures "stupid" and said they were disrupting student life to the point where officials might as well close the entire school.
Sophomore Hannah Guild showed up for a routine appointment but gave up when she saw the line of students. She said many students probably had spring allergy symptoms and that she found school officials' reaction somewhat extreme.
It's unclear just how effective the University of Delaware measures — and perhaps the school closings — will be in preventing infections. Students are returning to crowded dorms or apartments and to meals in the cafeteria. And while university and state health officials can urge affected students to practice what's known as "social distancing," they have not quarantined anyone at this point.
Earlier this week, health officials had been urging K-12 schools to stay open if possible. But as the week wears on, more public school systems are initiating widespread closures. In Texas, for instance, at least 100,000 students across 13 districts remained at home Thursday as entire suburban districts closed. Some plan to remain closed until May 11.
In Huntsville, Ala., all schools were closed on the advice of the county health department because of two probable cases of swine flu at a local school. The closures affected more than 51,000 students in three different districts.
Parents are being urged to keep their kids at home, a challenging prospect for those who have to work. In this economic recession, parents with young children will face difficult choices as the school closings drag on and as the long summer break approaches. The standard option during ice storms ("go play at your friend's house") isn't available.
Meanwhile, public officials struggled to raise awareness without spreading panic.
Vice President Biden enhanced his reputation for being a little too quick on the draw, saying that he was advising his family to avoid public transportation, including airplanes.
The remark didn't sit well with the airline industry, which is already struggling with a bad business climate. So the vice president's office issued a statement translating Biden-speak into bureaucratese: Biden was merely restating the same advice the Obama administration is giving everyone, to avoid unnecessary travel. The statement also reiterated the now-familiar admonition to cover your face when you cough.
No word on whether that advice will replace the familiar FAA warnings about what to do when those oxygen masks drop down. It's an open question whether anyone would want to put on those masks — who knows who wore them last.