Vice President Biden's Imprudent Words on the H1N1 Virus

Friday, May 1, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA sought to assure a nervous nation Wednesday night that the H1N1 virus, the new strain of swine flu racing around the world, is "cause for deep concern but not panic." His calming words were trampled the next morning by Vice President Biden.

In an interview on NBC's "Today" show, host Matt Lauer asked Mr. Biden, "If a member of your family came to you . . . and said, 'Look, I want to go on a commercial airliner to Mexico and back within the next week,' would you think it's a good idea?" The vice president replied, "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 [that] you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me." He added, "So, from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation. If you're out in the middle of a field when someone sneezes, that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's a different thing."

No doubt America's airlines are at the front of the line of those eager to send the vice president back to his work on high-speed rail service or nuclear nonproliferation or whatever he does when not issuing misguided public health advice. How misguided could be measured by the speed with which the White House issued a clarification. The common-sense course of action was reiterated by Mr. Obama at his news conference. Cover your cough or sneeze. Wash your hands frequently. And if you are sick, stay home. Same for your child. Mr. Biden's imprudent words could be taken as a green light for everyone to abandon the Metro, pull children out of school and avoid travel.

For reasons still unknown, the United States is not yet being affected as severely as Mexico. There have been more than 150 H1N1-related deaths there. Symptoms have been diagnosed in more than 2,500 people, and more than 1,300 of those have been hospitalized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported yesterday that the numbers in the United States stood at 109 laboratory-confirmed cases, with one death in Texas, that of a child who had traveled from Mexico to visit family. There were eight possible cases in Maryland but none in the District.

Richard E. Besser, acting director of the CDC offered a useful reminder when he said that the flu is an annual occurrence. "We see it every season, every winter," he said. "Unfortunately, I do expect to see more deaths." But, adding much-needed context, Dr. Besser pointed out that there are "on average, 36,000 deaths from seasonal flu." The advice that we offered on Monday and that most Obama administration officials have correctly insisted still stands: Don't panic.

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