The Administration’s Response to the H1N1 Flu Virus

Last night, during a press conference marking the end of his first 100 days in office, President Obama explained how his administration is responding to the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, also known as “swine flu”. Here is a partial transcript of his remarks on the subject:

President Obama: We are continuing to closely monitor the emergency cases of the H1N1 flu virus throughout the United States. As I said this morning, this is obviously a very serious situation, and every American should know that their entire government is taking the utmost precautions and preparations. Our public health officials have recommended that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of this flu strongly consider temporarily closing. And if more schools are forced to close, we’ve recommended that both parents and businesses think about contingency plans if their children do have to stay home.

I’ve requested an immediate $1.5 billion in emergency funding from Congress to support our ability to monitor and track this virus and to build our supply of antiviral drugs and other equipment, and we will also ensure that those materials get to where they need to be as quickly as possible.

And finally, I’ve asked every American to take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you’re sick; and keep your children home from school if they’re sick.

We’ll continue to provide regular updates to the American people as we receive more information, and everyone should rest assured that this government is prepared to do whatever it takes to control the impact of this virus…

Reporter: Thank you, Mr. President. With the flu outbreak spreading and worsening, can you talk about whether you think it’s time to close the border with Mexico, and whether — under what conditions you might consider quarantining, when that might be appropriate?

President Obama: Well, first of all, as I said, this is a cause for deep concern, but not panic. And I think that we have to make sure that we recognize that how we respond — intelligently, systematically, based on science and what public health officials have to say — will determine in large part what happens.

I’ve consulted with our public health officials extensively on a day-to-day basis, in some cases, an hour-to-hour basis. At this point they have not recommended a border closing. From their perspective it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States. We have ramped up screening efforts, as well as made sure that additional supplies are there on the border so that we can prepare in the eventuality that we have to do more than we’re doing currently.

But the most important thing right now that public health officials have indicated is that we treat this the same way that we would treat other flu outbreaks, just understanding that because this is a new strain we don’t yet know how it will respond. So we have to take additional precautions — essentially, take out some additional insurance. That’s why I asked for an additional $1.5 million, so that we can make sure that everything is in place should a worst-case scenario play out.

I do want to compliment Democrats and Republicans who worked diligently back in 2005 when the bird flu came up. I was part of a group of legislators who worked with the Bush administration to make sure that we had beefed up our infrastructure and our stockpiles of antiviral drugs like Tamiflu. And I think the Bush administration did a good job of creating the infrastructure so that we can respond. For example, we’ve got 50 million courses of antiviral drugs in the event that they’re needed.

So the government is going to be doing everything that we can. We’re coordinating closely with state and local officials. Secretary Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security, newly installed Secretary Sebelius of Health and Human Services, our Acting CDC Director — they are all on the phone on a daily basis with all public health officials across the states to coordinate and make sure that there’s timely reporting, that if as new cases come up that we are able to track them effectively, that we’re allocating resources so that they’re in place.

The key now I think is to make sure that we are maintaining great vigilance, that everybody responds appropriately when cases do come up. And individual families start taking very sensible precautions that can make a huge difference. So wash your hands when you shake hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. I know it sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference. If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, keep them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don’t get on an airplane. Don’t get on any system of public transportation where you’re confined and you could potentially spread the virus.

The Obama administration’s policies and recommendations make sense with the exception of the decision to keep the border with Mexico open. The rationale for not closing it, that “it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out because we already have cases here in the United States,” is faulty. Just because there are some people in the US who are already infected with the virus does not mean that the US should not try to prevent more infected people from entering the country. Limiting the number of contagious visitors would obviously reduce the number of Americans who will be infected. Nearly all of the people who currently have the virus are in Mexico, so it would be sensible to temporarily close the US-Mexican border to protect Americans, especially since nobody knows just how deadly and contagious the flu will turn out to be. The fact that the administration has failed to do so thus far belies the president’s claim that the “entire government is taking the utmost precautions and preparations.”

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