Va., Md. Governors Take Different Approaches to Swine Flu Issue

With officials watching 17 confirmed cases and more than 60 "possible" cases, the D.C. region feels the effects of the swine flu. Officials ask residents to take necessary precautions, such as hand washing and avoiding heavily congested areas, to help contain the virus.
By Ashley Halsey III and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 2, 2009

When they awoke Monday to the increasing reality of a swine flu pandemic, top officials on either side of the Potomac chose virtually identical words to reassure the worried public.

"We've been planning for a situation like this for many years," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

"We've been planning for this for years and years," said Maryland Health Secretary John M. Colmers.

In the days that followed, it became clear that the years of preparation had produced two very different plans.

Maryland officials unleashed a tsunami of information, paraded out agency heads and experts each day, and made spokesmen available to provide all but the most revealing personal details about the first victims.

Virginia took a more cautious approach, sharing only the information deemed necessary to protect public health.

After a week in which 50 states implemented 50 slightly different plans for handling the crisis, the agency with responsibility for all of them, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, summoned all the governors to a telephone conference call yesterday.

"They upgraded and changed their initial guidelines," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). "This situation will evolve as the science evolves, and the guidelines need to evolve with it."

Tactics for disseminating information to the public during a moment of crisis has been developed into a fine art since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon nearly eight years ago. State and federal agencies have prepared and tested plans to spread necessary information and contain panic under all sorts of scenarios, including the likes of a biological or dirty-bomb attack. Those plans were first tweaked and fine-tuned to handle a potential natural threat -- avian flu -- in 2006.

The differences in approach became apparent Monday, when O'Malley appeared at a state emergency command center and predicted that swine flu would surface in his state. Kaine, holding a similar news conference with Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley, said he hoped his state would be spared.

After the first six probable cases were reported to O'Malley on Wednesday, he huddled with his top advisers. David Paulson of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene described the decision to go public.

"The earlier we communicated to the public, the more that we were able to tell them without compromising the privacy of the individuals, the better the public would be able to prepare and deal with this," Paulson said. Although no names were released, state officials described the flu patients by their age, where they lived and whether they had traveled to Mexico.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company