Also Present: Jon Krohmer, M.D., Department Of Homeland Security
Subject: Swine Flu Outbreak
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MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the briefing on the 2009 H1N1 virus. As you can see, Secretary Napolitano is joined today by the secretary of Education, Secretary Duncan. And with us is also DHS chief medical officer, Dr. Jon Krohmer. The secretaries will make remarks. And then we'll have a few minutes for questions today.
So Secretary Napolitano.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Good. Thanks, Sean.
And this is part of our ongoing effort to keep people posted, on what is happening and what we are seeing, and to begin to address frequently asked questions. And I'm pleased to be joined to by Secretary of Education Duncan.
The most frequently asked question we are getting is, why this flu is being treated differently than seasonal flu.
In other words, you don't normally see the secretary of Homeland Security talking about the seasonal flu outbreak.
And the answer is because this is a new strain of flu. And during seasonal flu, which we have every year -- and unfortunately it does end up resulting in the hospitalization, usually, of about 200,000 Americans, about 35(,000) to 36,000 fatalities -- that's the normal with seasonal flu. But with seasonal flu we also have a large part of our population that have developed antibodies -- they're pretty good antibodies -- against it, as opposed to what we're seeing now.
And what the -- what the H1N1 is is a new strain of flu, and that means that the normal antibodies you would have haven't yet developed. And that's why, for example, you will see a population affected, like previously healthy adults, that wouldn't be affected as strongly with a seasonal flu. So that's why all the precautions.
And because this is a new strain of flu, the scientists are still figuring out the epidemiology. They're still figuring out exactly what we're dealing with as a flu virus. And for that reason, it's important to lean into this, as we are; take precautions, as we are; without really knowing whether this is -- or what kind of pandemic this will be.
Let me pause a moment on the world pandemic, because there's been a lot of concern also raised with the World Health Organization. They've gone from level 3 to 4 and 4 to 5. What happens if they go to level 6? A couple of things. One is, what those numbers represent is how widespread, around the world, a new virus is. In other words, when we're at level 6, it means it's in a lot of places.
Now, we already know it's in the United States. It's been in the United States for the last week. So we've already been undertaking precautions.
What the levels do is tell countries that don't yet have any illness the things they probably ought to be preparing for, because they better expect that it's going to get there sooner or later. So if this goes to level 6, you will hear me say, as I've said, is we are already preparing as if it is going to level 6, because the virus is already in our shores.
And we, again, are relying, in terms of everything we have done and will do, on the best that the scientists can tell us, but realize that the picture for them is changing also. And it changes regularly. And we move with that change as well.
But to recap, the last few days, the Department of HHS declared a public-health emergency on Sunday to free up resources to begin prepositioning antivirals and other types of personal protective equipment. That also allowed the execution of an emergency authorization. That allows the antivirals to be prescribed beyond their normal population that they would be given to.
We've initiated a process to move millions of treatment courses of Tamiflu and Relenza out to the states. We have a stockpile of 50 million courses. We're going to move roughly 11 million courses to the states. That movement will be complete by this Sunday.
In the meantime, and since we last spoke, HHS has authorized the purchase of replacement (anti-flus ?). So even as we move antiviral out to the public or out to the states for -- we're replacing the national stockpile.
The State Department did issue a travel advisor -- advisory for nonessential travel to Mexico. We have been providing daily briefings and updates to state and local public health officials and state emergency managers, coordinating our response efforts with them and ensuring an open line of communication.
We're also providing daily briefings to the private sector, keeping them updated and then really asking them to be partners here, to make sure they have looked at their continuity of business plans and also make sure that they are thinking about their employees, who may indeed, as this goes on, have to stay home from work to be -- either because they're sick or because they're with a child who is sick, so to be sympathetic to that.
We continue to emphasize that everybody has a role here. This is a shared responsibility of the government, the private sector, government -- and when I say that, I mean all levels, federal, local, tribal -- but also every individual.
It's a common thing, and you'll -- you're going to hear it a lot, which is cover your mouth when you cough; wash your hands regularly, and really wash them, keep them washed; and also, if you are sick, stay away from school, stay away from the workplace, stay away from contained places like buses, airplanes and the like, where you could spread the virus.
The president has requested $1.5 billion in additional funds to help with the costs associated with this outbreak of H1N1. And at his Cabinet meeting this morning he convened a special Cabinet meeting to discuss the latest developments and the coordination of the government's response among all the various Cabinet agencies.
So that's kind of the -- where we are to date. If you need updated numbers and the like, we can get those to you.
I want to pause a moment and say that the actual number of cases is probably not the most relevant number. Really, the most relevant number is the number of states that the virus has been confirmed in. And I think we are in 11 confirmed states right now, with several others with suspected cases. And so that map is continually updated, and the National Operations Center, which is located here, updates those numbers twice a day. And when we say confirmed, we mean confirmed by the CDC.
So with that, let me introduce the secretary of Education, Secretary Duncan, to talk a bit about how this is affecting our school-age population.
SEC. DUNCAN: Thank you so much, Secretary, and thanks so much for your leadership and hard work on this issue.
We are all rightly concerned about the potential health impact of this flu. But as secretary of Education, I am also concerned about the impact of this flu on learning. As of today, about 430 public and non-public schools are closed for reasons related to this flu outbreak. Just to put that number in context, we have almost 100,000 schools in our country, so this is less than half of 1 percent of our schools that have been impacted.
Let me first speak to parents: The safety of your children is absolutely our number-one concern.
To the school superintendents and principals: I urge you to continue to take your cues from public health officials in your area, in your state, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health and safety have to come first. If you have a confirmed case of H1N1 flu among children or adults at your school, or if anyone at your school is personally connected to someone with the flu, like a family member, then the CDC recommends you strongly consider closing school for up to 14 days.
Now, to teachers: Teachers, we please ask you to think about reworking upcoming lesson plans, so students can do their school work at home if necessary. Have assignments ready to keep them busy and engaged for up to a week or two, including handouts or books that students can take home, so that learning continues. Make sure you know how to reach your students at home, in case school does close. Maybe you can continue the classroom conversation and instruction by e-mail or online or by phone.
To parents and guardians: I know it can be inconvenient when your child's school is closed. If you have to stay home from work, use that opportunity to keep up -- keep your children -- keep your child up to speed. Learn about what they're learning in school, and keep them on task.
And finally, to our students: You also need to do your part. And the Secretary talked about this idea of shared responsibility. And also, most importantly, this school year isn't over yet. Don't fall behind your peers at other schools that are still in session. Keep working hard. And we absolutely want to finish this school year strong.
Our basic theme is keep safe, and keep learning. Thank you.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: And one addition for that is, if a school is closed and children or students are being asked to remain at home, for parents and guardians, that means they're to remain at home.
The whole idea is to contain the spread of this virus, and we don't get the containment feature of closing a school if all our young people do is just go to the mall or elsewhere. So if they're being asked to stay home, that's exactly what we mean.
And the reason we're asking that is because this is a flu that is transmittable human to human and it's relatively easily transmissible. So again, close contact can provide an avenue for this flu to go from one to another. That's why we are watching and have a containment strategy with all of our advice for the public at large.
So, with that, why don't we take a few questions.
Q Secretary, can you talk about at what point you take broader social distancing steps in communities with confirmed cases?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Again, we take our guidance from the scientists here. The safety of the American people is our number-one concern. And right now we're taking the steps that we've been advised to take. But that could change. And it could change rapidly. And so just everybody needs to lean forward, be on their toes, listen, not overreact, but understand that the situation could change.
Q What would the changes be?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: I don't want to play what-ifs, but for example, if you saw a lot more cases of a higher degree of severity. Those would be the kind of common-sense factors that would go into such a decision.
Q Madame Secretary, can you talk about the difference in confirmed and unconfirmed cases, and what makes them confirmed, and how many unconfirmed are there potentially?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: We'll get you the numbers later. There's a lot more unconfirmed than confirmed, obviously, because people are sending in samples because they feel sick, but they don't actually have the H1N1 virus. And so, what "confirmed" means is that there's a test -- and I don't know the science of it, you can ask the scientists -- but there's a test that, if it's positive, you've got H1N1 versus being sick with something else. That's the difference.
Q Secretary Duncan, if it takes days for symptoms to show up, why not take more of a preemptive -- you know, a stronger or broader approach to schools, in terms of why not ask some of them to close to prevent the spread instead of reacting to the spread?
SEC. DUNCAN: Again, we're really trying to follow the lead of the scientists in CDC, and this is their clear recommendation now.
Q Secretary Napolitano, could I ask you one question off topic a little bit?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Sure.
Q As I guess you've heard, Justice Souter has announced that he is planning to resign soon from the Supreme Court. Your name has popped up on some lists as a possible candidate. I'm just wondering if that's something you might be interested at some point.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Oh, I'm fully engaged as the secretary of Homeland Security.
In fact, I hadn't heard that he had actually resigned, so you just broke some news for me today. Thank you.
Q Secretary Napolitano, do you have any sort of explanation for the reason that we're seeing relatively mild cases here in the United States at this stage?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: No, we don't have a good reason yet. And Dr. Besser, the acting head of the CDC, was at our Cabinet meeting this morning and was asked that question. And part of that means -- is because we don't yet have a full understanding of what happened in Mexico and why the disease has taken a certain course in Mexico.
And so we have -- as well as the Canadians -- we all have teams of scientists down there -- and I think we've actually jointly stood up at least one lab -- to really examine what's gone on in Mexico, to see if that will give us better predictive capacity of what could occur in the United States.
Q All right. Secretary Duncan, I could, earlier today, or actually yesterday, a kid in Georgia was sent home from school because he was wearing a mask and refused to take it off, and -- administrator says he was kind of creating a disturbance. I'm wondering if your office is giving any guidance to public schools as to how to deal with a situation like that.
SEC. DUNCAN: There's going to be lots of things that we haven't anticipated coming up. To send a child home because he wore a mask probably doesn't make sense to me, but we'll be trying to, you know, put out guidance and sort of get ahead of some of these issues.
But we just want folks to have, you know, a common-sense approach and be smart. And, again, we are strongly encouraging everyone to wash their hands frequently. In my first conversation in the morning, this morning, with the secretary, she urged me to wash my hands frequently today. So I'm trying to continue to do that myself. But we want -- we want folks to be smart, take a common-sense approach and, you know, be cautious but not get carried away yet.
Q All right. Thank you guys.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Thank you all very much.
SEC. DUNCAN (?): Thanks.