Federal Agent From Anne Arundel Likely Caught Swine Flu on Trip With Obama

Governments around the world are launching medical and clean up operations to protect citizens against swine flu infections.
By William Wan, Ashley Halsey III and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 1, 2009

A federal agent who traveled to Mexico with President Obama this month probably contracted swine flu and infected several members of his family in Anne Arundel County, prompting assurances yesterday from the White House that the president was safe.

The agent's family members are among the nine probable cases authorities have identified in Maryland, including two announced yesterday. One of those was a Montgomery County man who works at the World Bank and had recently traveled to Mexico.

Last night, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced that Virginia had its first two confirmed cases as the virus spread through the Washington region, and Montgomery school officials announced that Rockville High School would be closed today after authorities reported a probable case involving a student.

Marc S. Griswold, a former Secret Service agent who was serving as the lead advance special agent for Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the mid-April trip, said in an interview that the minor cough he developed in Mexico grew into swine flu. Although he has recovered and is back to work, he and his family have watched in shock as his illness has sparked national security concerns, severely strained his relationship with his brother and put his family at the center of rumors and panic in his Severna Park neighborhood.

Over the past two days, his daughter, who was not infected, has endured stares and mean jokes as rumors spread through her school about her family's role in some of the first swine flu cases in the region, Griswold said. Griswold probably infected his nephew, and now the parents, close friends, refuse to talk to him.

"We're not the Typhoid Mary family, for goodness' sake," Griswold said in frustration on the front steps of his house. "We've been told we're not contagious. We're already past the seven-day mark for that."

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs did not identify Griswold by name but said officials asked the infected agent whether he remembers coming within six feet of the president during the trip. The answer was no, Gibbs told reporters. Obama's doctor, David Martin, issued a letter to more than 100 White House staffers and reporters, alerting them that they had been exposed but expressing confidence that further infections were unlikely.

"The president, as I've said here many times, has not experienced any symptoms, and the doctors see no need to conduct any tests," Gibbs said.

In addition to the Montgomery cases announced yesterday, authorities said a second person from Baltimore County had probably been infected. The new cases have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for confirmation.

School officials in Rockville were alerted to a student illness at about 6:30 Thursday night. After consulting with the CDC and state health officials, they decided to close the school as a precaution. They said the student was last in school on Monday, but provided little other information.

The World Bank employee, also from Montgomery, had traveled to Mexico for business from April 13 through 18, bank officials said. He sought treatment from his doctor but because his travel occurred before the epidemic was announced by Mexican health authorities and the World Health Organization, he spent time in the office April 20. The man has recovered, but bank officials said they have asked staff members who were in close contact with him to work from home until receiving guidance from D.C. health officials.

The Virginia cases were in Chesterfield and the Northern Neck. State officials said a man and a woman had traveled separately to Mexico and contracted the virus. They were hospitalized and have recovered.

There have been no reported cases in the District.

Griswold said yesterday that his symptoms started innocuously, with a minor cough that began soon after his trip to Mexico as part of the president's entourage.

Obama and Chu, accompanied by Griswold, were part of a "working dinner" in Mexico on April 16. Griswold returned from Mexico on April 18, officials said, on United Flight 822 to Dulles International Airport.

When he got home, he chalked up the cough to Mexico's pollution and thought nothing of it the night after his return when he brought a present from Mexico to his brother's house and stayed for dinner.

Griswold's wife, Alison, a registered nurse, was the first to notice something wrong in the family. When she checked on her 7-year-old son at school April 21, something about him seemed off. He said he felt fine and he looked all right, Alison Griswold said. But the school nurse said he had a low fever, so Alison took him home and kept him there for two days until he recovered.

Then she started getting sick: a cough, a high fever and chills. Last Friday, Griswold and his wife went to a doctor, who wasn't overly concerned. On Sunday, they saw another doctor, who gave them a flu test that came back negative. On Tuesday, on advice from health officials, the couple and their youngest child got the more thorough nasal swab test.

The results came in Wednesday morning: positive for Type A influenza, probably the swine flu.

After the initial shock came dread. Like everyone else, they had been watching the news and had seen reports of panic and fear in Mexico and in the United States.

As reports of their test results reached the White House, officials began piecing together Griswold's brief connection to Obama. Aides began calling people who had traveled with the president and informed the president yesterday morning.

The White House press office began preparing to make a dramatic reversal. For days, Gibbs had insisted there had been no real danger of infection during Obama's Mexico visit. On Monday, Gibbs shot down repeated questions about health concerns, saying Obama "has not exhibited any symptoms; neither has anybody traveling with him."

Meanwhile, at home, Griswold and his wife tried to help their children get back into school. It was only at the advice of health officials that they kept their two unaffected children at school and sent the sick one back Wednesday, they said.

Yesterday morning, knowing a maelstrom of news crews and worried parents was probably awaiting them at Folger McKinsey Elementary, Alison Griswold gave her three children a short pep talk on the drive to school.

"We've got nothing to be ashamed of," she told them. "We didn't get anyone else at school sick."

And Griswold has tried to reach out to his brother's family. His wife and their 7-year-old son made up two of the first three probable cases in Anne Arundel County, and Griswold's 2-year-old nephew tested positive as the third. (Because of pending test results, Griswold himself is listed as a suspected case.)

His brother's wife called them, clearly angry about her son's infection. Griswold tried and is still trying to apologize to them.

"It's my nephew and godson. I love him dearly," he said. "I would never intentionally expose him to something like that. It's an unfortunate part of this line of work I'm in, but even then, I mean, no one knew when we were down there that this could happen."

Beside him, his wife coughed briefly. "It's the pollen. That's why I'm coughing," she said quickly. "Don't worry."

Staff writers Lori Aratani, Anita Kumar, Nikita Stewart, Michael Ruane, Dan DeVise and Clarence Williams and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company