By William Branigin and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 4:35 PM
Health authorities today reported a second death in the United States from swine flu -- a woman in south Texas -- even as the federal government rescinded its recommendation that schools shut down if they have any suspected cases of the virus.
The Texas Department of State Health Services announced this afternoon that a woman from Cameron County, the southernmost county in the state, died earlier this week after contracting swine flu. It said she had "chronic underlying health conditions" but did not elaborate or provide any other details on the woman.
The department said the fatality was "the first death of a Texas resident with H1N1 flu." A toddler from Mexico, who also had underlying health problems, died from the illness last week in a Houston hospital. He is listed as the first fatality in the United States from the current swine flu outbreak.
Earlier, the government reported that the number of confirmed swine flu cases across the nation now exceeds 400 in 38 states, and officials repeated warnings that the illness -- while no more severe than seasonal influenza so far -- is likely to spread over the days and weeks ahead.
But federal officials said they are no longer recommending that schools close for about two weeks if they have any suspected cases of swine flu. Instead, they said, parents should simply keep sick children at home, and those with flu-like symptoms should stay home for a week.
In its latest bulletin on the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta said this morning that 403 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 flu have been reported, up sharply from the 286 tallied 24 hours earlier. The bulletin added two more states to the list of those with confirmed cases: Georgia and Maine, each with one infected person. The largest confirmed swine flu caseloads, according to the CDC, are in New York (90 cases), Illinois (82), California (49), Texas (41), Delaware (20), Arizona (17), South Carolina (16) and Oregon (15). The other affected states all have cases in the single digits.
The Texas Health Department, however, lists 61 confirmed swine flu cases, including that of the Mexican boy who died last week. It says cases have been found in 16 of the state's 254 counties. Cameron County, where the latest fatality was recorded, is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and to the south by the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Its county seat is Brownsville.
"The ongoing outbreak of novel influenza A (H1N1) continues to expand in the United States and internationally," the CDC said on its Web site this morning. "CDC expects that more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths from this outbreak will occur over the coming days and weeks."
Acting CDC Director Richard E. Besser said that when "probable" swine flu cases in the United States are added to the confirmed ones, the total today reaches at least 1,105. He said the virus likely will show up in all 50 states within the next few days.
So far, Besser said, 35 swine flu patients in the United States have been hospitalized.
According to the World Health Organization, 1,490 confirmed swine flu cases have now been reported in 21 countries, resulting in a total of 30 deaths. It said Mexico has reported 822 confirmed cases, including 29 deaths. No deaths from the virus have occurred in countries other than Mexico and the United States, WHO said.
Of the other nations with swine flu cases, Canada tops the list with 140, followed by Spain with 57 and Britain with 27, according to the WHO figures. The agency says places with confirmed cases in the single digits include Austria, Hong Kong, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, France Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, South Korea and Switzerland.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was sworn in a week ago, told a conference of philanthropists in Atlanta today that "we are cautiously optimistic" that the worst of the crisis has passed in Mexico, where the outbreak originated last month, and that the United States so far has not experienced the same severity of illness.
Sebelius marked her first week on the job with a whirlwind tour of the CDC today, racing to get up to speed on the flu outbreak.
"I didn't expect a pre-pandemic as a welcome wagon to this job, but it's been a great baptism by fire," she said in a speech this morning.
Sebelius said the government has purchased millions of courses of medication to treat influenza and that scientists are working to develop a vaccine that might protect against the new swine flu.
"We know a great deal about this virus, but I would caution you all that we still have much to learn," she said. "The flu virus is always unpredictable, and we don't know what this virus will do. We expect to see to see more cases, more hospitalizations and, unfortunately, more deaths."
Sebelius also used her appearance before the Council on Foundations to put in a plug for broad health care reform legislation this year. She credited President Obama with doing more in his first 100 days in office to give Americans affordable, quality health care "than has been done in the past decade."
Besser today defended the CDC's continuing aggressive approach toward the swine flu outbreak despite what he has said are "encouraging signs" that it is not as severe as originally feared.
"Often, with an emerging infection you get one chance," he said. "You get one chance to get out in front of it."
Besser later told a news briefing that the decision to change the federal guidance on school closings was prompted by growing evidence that the virus found in the United States is relatively mild.
"We are not seeing the rates of severe disease that had been reported initially out of Mexico," he said. Any schools that closed based on the previous guidelines are free to reopen, he said.
In Mexico, meanwhile, authorities moved ahead with plans to reopen businesses and schools and get the country back to normal despite having to cancel today's Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Among the canceled events was a reenactment of the Mexican army's May 5, 1862, victory over French troops in the central state of Puebla, the largest of the day's scheduled celebrations.
Many previously shuttered businesses and offices are scheduled to reopen tomorrow, and high school and university students are slated to go back to school Thursday. Students younger than 15 are to return to classes May 11, according to the government's plan.
Mexican Finance Minister Agustin Carstens estimated today that the swine flu outbreak has cost the country's tourism industry roughly $2.3 billion.
In addition, a number of countries, including China and Russia, have imposed bans on pork imports from parts of Mexico and the United States affected by swine flu, even though scientists insist the disease cannot be transmitted by eating meat.
China also has quarantined dozens of Mexican travelers who have shown no symptoms of the illness, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Mexican government. Mexico sent a chartered plane to China to pick up quarantined Mexicans from several locations and bring them home today. No swine flu cases have been reported so far on the Chinese mainland. The WHO has cited one confirmed case in Hong Kong.
According to the WHO's latest bulletin, the agency "advises no restriction of regular travel or closure of borders." It also says, "There is no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products."
In an address to the nation last night, Mexican President Felipe Calderón strongly criticized countries that he said have treated Mexico unfairly over the outbreak. He did not name any of those nations.
Mexico is a battlefront "where we are defending not only Mexicans but all the human beings in the world that could catch this new disease," he said. "And we will be able to fight this battle more easily if the world collaborates with us."
Calderón added: "That is why, on behalf of Mexicans, I would ask all the countries that have done so, to stop taking actions that only damage Mexico and fail to stop the spread of the disease. That is why, on behalf of Mexico, I express my absolute rejection of the offensive or discriminatory actions taken by several countries against Mexicans."
Connolly reported from Atlanta. Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.