Press Conference with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew; Department of Homeland Security Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jon Krohmer
Subject: Swine Flu, or H1N1
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MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for joining us for our daily briefing on the 2009 H1N1 virus.
Secretary Napolitano, as you can see, is joined by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew and DHS -- DHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jon Krohmer. These folks will make some remarks and then we'll open it up for questions.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Great. Thank you, Sean (sp).
Last night, we heard President Obama speak directly to the country about the H1N1 virus. The president made clear that the number-one priority is the safety of the American people. That's our focus and will continue to be our focus throughout the duration of this outbreak. Every action we are taking is meant to stop the spread of the virus and to mitigate its effect on our communities. Our decisions are being made based on the best science and best epidemiology that we know, and that is informing all of our decisions here.
Prioritized states are now receiving antivirals. And let me -- there's been some confusion about the difference between a vaccine and an antiviral. A vaccine is something that one takes to prevent the occurrence of disease; an antiviral is something one takes after, you know, you've already -- after you've already become sick. We have stockpiled in this country 50 million courses of the right kinds of antivirals for this particular flu, Tamiflu and Relenza -- 50 million courses. In addition, the states have another 23 million courses stockpiled, and the Department of Defense has a number of millions of courses stockpiled.
From the national stockpile, we're already moving Tamiflu and Relenza out to the states, with a priority to states that have confirmed incidence of disease. And the complete deployment of 25 percent of the relevant part of the stockpile will be out to the states by the 3rd of May. In addition, we are sending out -- in addition to the antivirals, we're sending out gloves and masks and other similar equipment.
As of this afternoon, antivirals and assets have already reached New York City, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, and of course the District of Columbia. And as I said, more continue to get distributed every day till we're complete with the initial wave of distribution by -- by the 3rd of May.
We are also working with our private-sector and critical- infrastructure partners to make sure they're doing what they need to do to educate their employees and they are making sure they're working through their own planning checklists on what to do in this type of a situation.
With respect to the borders, based on the information supplied to us by the CDC and the World Health Organization, our position has not changed. Customs and Border Patrol agents continue to watch for travelers who demonstrate signs of illness, to make sure that they are taking appropriate action. We are also taking similar action at our nation's airports.
But as the president noted last night, closing the entire borders would have no benefit at this point because the virus is already present in the United States. The comparison is clear: it's like closing the barn door well after the horse has left.
In addition, the CDC continues to issue community guidance and guidelines for what localities can do, schools, school districts can do as we go through this. If you are a parent and you may believe that at some point your school -- the school or schools where your children go may be temporarily closed, be sure you have thought ahead about what you will do with your children and how you make sure that that's appropriately taken care of. And importantly, if a school is closed, it is not closed so that kids can go out to the mall or go out into the community at large. They're being asked to stay home, because the entire purpose is to limit containment -- communication within the community. So if a school is closed, the guidance is and the request is to keep your young ones at home.
Washing hands often with soap and water, covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze, staying home if you are sick, and contacting your health-care provider or doctor if you have severe flu-like symptoms are all part of the common-sense guidance that we are following.
With that, there are several issues or questions that have been raised with respect to travel, so I'm pleased today to be joined by the secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. And we'll ask him to come forward. Ray?
SEC. LAHOOD: Thank you, Secretary.
Thank you very much. My message really is that it is safe to fly; there is no reason to cancel flights. We are working with the airline industry to make sure that they have the most up-to-date information from the CDC so that their crews and their staff will know what procedures and measures are necessary to make sure that if there are any signs or symptoms of flu that they can also ensure the safety of their employees and the flying public.
Last evening, I spent 45 minutes on a telephone conversation with the transportation secretary of Mexico. They are not suspending or canceling any flights, and he and I will continue to be in touch with one another on these types of aviation issues.
We are taking our cues from the CDC. We have been at all of the meetings -- our office, our department has been at all of the meetings that have been coordinated by the CDC and the White House. And we believe that -- that flying is safe and we will continue to monitor the situation. But, really, the CDC is the organization that will give us the guidance as we go forward.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: (Inaudible.)
MR. LEW: Thank you, Secretary Napolitano. The Department of State has mobilized all of the -- its resources and expertise to address the challenge. From the immediate onset of the spread of H1N1, we had organized a task force in our operations center that's 24/7 so that all information coming in from around the world could be coordinated.
We have just upgraded the task force -- upgraded this operation to a task force, which was headed by Ambassador Robert G. Loftis, who heads our Office of Avian and Pandemic Influenza Action.
The task force is in constant -- in close contact with all of our embassies around the world, all of our missions. And it's the point of contact for foreign governments as they reach out to us and as we reach out to them to understand what is developing and what forms of assistance are being requested, and then we, in turn, are then coordinating with all of the other agencies of the U.S. government and -- as the other departments taking from the CDC for the actions that we ought to be taking.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: (Off mike.)
SEC. LAHOOD: Time for -- yeah, a few questions about -- (inaudible). Pete, go ahead.
Q Secretary LaHood, if I could ask you a little more about travel.
You're saying it's safe to travel on any form of transportation in the U.S. -- airplanes, buses, subways --
SEC. LAHOOD: Yes sir. Yes sir. But we encourage the public to follow the guidelines that have been established that were laid out by Secretary Napolitano that -- and for all citizens to be observant, you know, if they're concerned about people that they're traveling with.
But these precautions, we think, are the best guidance that we can give the public. But all modes of transportation are safe in America.
Q Secretary Napolitano, can I ask about something you said in your testimony yesterday --
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Mm hmm.
Q -- about the fact that some of these folks who are diverted as they enter the U.S. for observation are cleared within a few minutes. How are they able to tell within a few minutes whether someone has the H1N1 virus?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Well, they can -- first of all, it may be that somebody just has a cold and says I just have a cold, I have no fever, you know, those sorts of things. So it's really, again, a pretty straightforward application about this.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Jason, go ahead.
Q Madam Secretary, can you address -- there've been claims coming from members of Congress today that there was a directive put out by DHS headquarters that Customs and Border Patrol (sic) officers should not wear or use face masks at ports of entry when they're encountering -- (off mike). And then you said today during the -- (inaudible) -- that there would be internal -- (inaudible). Can you please tell us what that is?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: That's right. I heard some of those members of Congress, and they just have incorrect information. There has been no departmental guidance given because we were waiting to assemble the best advice we could from others about what should happen with respect to our own employees. But we're in the process and we'll be issuing guidance out to our own employees as will be issued to federal employees, I think, generally over the next day or two.
Q Secretary Napolitano, you mentioned yesterday at one of the hearings -- (off mike) --
SEC. NAPOLITANO: There were -- it seemed like there were a lot of those.
Q -- yes, about possibly some changes at how visas are issued as a result of this.
Do you -- (off mike)? Does it -- there might be some delay? And -- (off mike). Would that be --
SEC. NAPOLITANO: I said in -- no, I think what you're referring to is I said in response to a question that we would look at issues relevant to the issuance of H2A visas, which involve agricultural workers. What that says is I don't know what is already done with respect to how those visas are issued, what if any health advisories or health checks are given. So we're just going to double-check that. Haven't done it yet, though.
Q (Off mike.) What's the guidance going to be on that?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: You'll know it when the federal employees get it. They have the opportunity and they should be getting it first, and it has not yet gone to them.
MODERATOR: Do we have any folks on the phone?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Somebody was on the phone. (Laughter.)
MR. : They were.
MR. : I think --
MR. : (Off mike.)
MR. : Yeah. (Laughs.)
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Okay.
MODERATOR: I guess we don't.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Okay.
Q Can I ask you a question about masks? Is there a clear sense among the federal experts about whether masks are effective or not? There seems to have been sort of contrary opinions about them.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Yeah, go -- yeah.
DR. KROHMER: Yeah, I think the -- the issue of whether the masks are effective or not is being questioned, specifically in the context of this particular virus. As we look at other viruses and other influenza-related illnesses, there's no question that the masks are effective. There is some -- you know, we don't have the science available at this point to definitively say, for this particular virus, we can unequivocally state that the masks are as effective as they are for some of the other viruses.
I think in terms of overall transmission of respiratory infections, there's no question that the masks serve the purpose of decreasing the communicability and the likelihood of being able to pass the virus on.
Q But do they work because they block the person wearing the mask from spreading it, or because the recipient, who's also wearing a mask, can't catch it? (Off mike) -- mask.
DR. KROHMER: Well, there are different types of masks, so somewhat would depend on the type of mask that the individual is wearing. But it can work either way. There are situations where it's appropriate to protect unexposed or un-ill individuals by them wearing the mask. It's also possible that if someone is potentially communicable, wearing a mask will decrease the potential communicability that they would pose.
MODERATOR: Okay. Okay, just one last question and we got to go.
Q Secretary, can you just give us some perspective? There seems to have -- yesterday, when the World Health Organization raised the threat level, everyone was talking about this being a widespread pandemic event coming. Americans are worried. On the Metro I've seen people wearing -- wearing masks, on the subway. Coming out of work, you see people on the street, tourists wearing masks in Washington. Just what would you tell Americans to kind of give us some perspective about the level and how concerned they should be?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Well, first of all, I'd say let the scientists -- let the doctors be your guide here, and let's have -- and what they share with us is their perspective, that we go through flu cycles every year. The normal flu cycle -- we call it the seasonal flu cycle -- and that happens. And you know, with respect to every seasonal flu cycle, we do have 35(,000) or 36,000 fatalities in the United States, part and process of that disease.
And so what we have here is a pandemic in the sense that it is may places, but right now its presentation as a specific type of flu for which a vaccine is now being prepared, and for which antivirals are currently available -- they've been stockpiled and they've now been distributed across the country and are in the process of being distributed across the country.
And so we, you know -- we can't just -- we're not -- can't just say, "stop everything." I mean, it's all a matter of communicating accurate information with people; as we get more particularized questions, going back and working those through so that answers can be given, which we have been doing every day and will continue to do.
But again, this is -- this is a flu cycle. It is an out-of- season flu cycle because it's a new flu strain, but antivirals for this strain exist. They've been stockpiled and they have been distributed. So people should know that those plans have been under way for several years, and we're now working through those plans.
MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Thanks.
Q Thank you.