The clarification was fast in coming after Vice President Joe Biden said on the Today show that he had advised his family not to fly or take public transportation. It was later clarified that he meant only avoid unnecessary air travel to Mexico.
The White House issued an apology today - sort of. It was for anyone who may have been alarmed this morning by comments from Vice President Joe Biden. Asked about traveling during the swine flu outbreak, the vice president gave what experts in and out of government say was some very bad advice. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The Obama administration has been very cautious and measured in its public comments on swine flu, following the tone of the president himself, who has said the outbreak was cause for a concern, but not panic. But Vice President Biden, well known for occasionally departing from the script, was asked on the NBC "Today Show" this morning what advice he'd give a family member about flying to Mexico.
Vice President JOE BIDEN: 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 I - if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.
Dr. MARK GENDREAU (Vice Chair, Emergency Medicine, Lahey Clinic): With all due respect of the vice president, every scientific evidence that we have contradicts everything that he stated today.
NAYLOR: That's Dr. Mark Gendreau, vice chair of emergency medicine at the Lahey Clinic outside Boston. Gendreau has researched and written extensively about flying and the spread of diseases. He says a person who sneezes, talks loud or even spits can spread the flu virus, but only so far.
Dr. GENDREAU: That large droplet has a range of about three feet, which would put you two seats in front, two seats behind, roughly speaking.
NAYLOR: Dr. Gendreau recommends travelers wash their hands often and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, but adds that people basically should not worry about flying. Biden's mention of riding on subways prompted a reply from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often rides the subway to work. He did so with great fanfare today, and said he didn't see a lot of people coughing and sneezing.
Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York): The bottom line is, I feel perfectly safe on the subway, and I think taking the subway doesn't seem to present any greater risks than doing anything else.
NAYLOR: Bloomberg didn't want to criticize Biden, but the airline industry wasn't so forgiving. One airline executive labeled Biden's comments, quote, fear mongering. Jet Blue's CEO, David Barger, was a bit more measured.
Mr. DAVID BARGER (CEO, Jet Blue Airlines): I think that words are very important, especially when we're talking about something a serious as this topic. And the consideration should be taken on the front side before issuing comments such as this.
NAYLOR: The virus may have come rather close to the president himself on his recent trip to Mexico. A member of the president's security detail has had what may have been a case of H1N1 flu, and may have passed that on to some people in suburban Maryland after returning from the trip. The individual involved has since recovered, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said today he had not been within six feet of Mr. Obama, and did not fly aboard Air Force One.
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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.