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Press Briefing with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; Undersecretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy; United States Trade Rep. Ron Kirk

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

Subject: Swine Flu Update

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MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here. Secretary Napolitano is going to make some remarks. You can see she is joined once again by Undersecretary of State Pat Kennedy, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

They'll make some remarks and then they will be happy to take a few questions.

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Thanks and good afternoon. I'd like to provide you with the latest information on our efforts to respond to the H1N1 flu outbreak.

First, I'd like to reiterate what President Obama said yesterday. This outbreak is a cause for concern, not yet a cause for alarm. Because the number of confirmed cases continues to rise and will likely rise in the next few days, we recognize that many Americans are rightly concerned about their own health and safety. I share that concern. The president shares that concern. But we are confident in the efforts under way across the federal government and across state and local governments to keep Americans safe and healthy.

The Department of Homeland Security, HHS, the CDC and our many partners continue to take aggressive action to prevent the further spread of the H1N1 virus and to mitigate its impact. Before I recap those efforts, I want to announce that we are establishing an operations coordination task force to deal with the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. This task force will assist me in my role as the principle federal official of this incident. It will consist of chiefs of staff of relevant departments and agencies and focus on operations, coordination and mitigation.

As noted earlier today, the president also has requested $1.5 billion to support H1N1 response.

So let me recap other efforts under way: The public health emergency declared by the Department of Health and Human Services on Sunday remains in effect. This clears the way to move resources around to meet needs that might arise and to coordinate actions across government to address the outbreak. There are currently 50 million treatment courses of antiviral drugs -- Tamiflu and Relenza are their commercial names -- in the National Strategic Stockpile.

At this stage, we are releasing about 12 million courses of antivirals and key medical equipment to states. This is about 25 percent of the total. We are prioritizing those states where cases have been confirmed.

Materials are currently en route to Arizona, California, Indiana, New York and Texas. New York and Arizona will receive their materials today, and we estimate all states and territories will receive their allocation by the 3rd of May.

The State Department travel advisory for Mexico remains in effect. It recommends against all non-essential travel to Mexico. The United States embassy in Mexico City and all of the United States consulates also have suspended all non-essential services to the public until May the 6th.

At our borders, Customs and Border Protection continues to watch for signs of illness among travelers entering the United States. All persons entering from a location with reported human infection of H1N1 flu will be processed through all appropriate CBP protocols. These actions match the recommendations by both the CDC and the World Health Organization, based on what we currently know about H1N1.

Our focus at this time is not on closing the border or conducting exit screenings. It is on mitigation. Travelers preventing -- or presenting symptoms, if and when encountered, will be isolated and evaluated by a public health official. Customs and Border Protection is also handling out the CDC travelers health alert notices in both English and Spanish to all travelers from Mexico.

The Transportation Security Administration, TSA, has instituted similar protocols at our airports, watching for individuals exhibiting flu-like symptoms and taking appropriate measures.

We continue to conduct daily conference calls with homeland security advisers, state and local elected officials, fusion centers, our private-sector partners and congressional representatives, as well as coordinating our efforts with our international partners. We are working in lock step to respond to this outbreak.

Other departments across the federal government also are taking action. You'll hear in a moment from Secretary Vilsack, but the Department of Agriculture continues to work with state animal health officials to affirm that they have no cases of this virus in their states. To date, no cases have been reported. The USDA and the United States Trade Representative also are reminding our trading partners that United States pork and pork products are safe, and there is no basis for restricting imports. You should also know that you cannot get H1N1 from eating pork. Pork products are perfectly safe.

Beyond these efforts, it's important to recognize that everyone across the United States has a role to play in addressing this outbreak. If you are feeling sick and show signs of the flu, stay home. If your children aren't feeling well, they should stay home from school. You should wash your hands often and cover your mouth when you cough.

We are working round the clock to monitor the situation. We will keep the public informed as the picture develops. And we anticipate holding these briefings on a regular basis to make sure that accurate information is provided to the public;.

With that, I'd like to introduce Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture. Tom.

SEC. VILSACK: Thank you very much.

And first of all, let me say from a USDA perspective that obviously our hearts go out to all those families who have been affected by the H1N1 virus, those who have lost loved ones and those who are currently dealing with those who are sick.

Obviously, at USDA we're also concerned about a lot of hard- working farm families around the United States who are interested in making sure that they can continue to raise pork and also be able to sell it here in America and around the world. So we are aggressively working with our state Ag departments and state veterinarians to make sure that we can constantly be aware of any changes in the current status.

As of today, as Secretary Napolitano indicated, we have no indication that any swine from the United States has been infected. We are constantly getting updates. And if that were to change, we would obviously notify folks immediately.

We have also taken the step of working through our foreign agricultural service as well as with Ambassador Kirk and the Trade Representative's office to send the message to all of our trading partners that we are open for business. We believe that there is no reason to stop or ban pork or pork products from the United States. As the secretary indicated, it is perfectly safe to consume pork, pork products, from America.

We're going to continue to trade. And we're going to continue to work with our trading partners to make sure that we answer any questions that they might have to make sure that the borders are open and trading lanes continue to be open.

I want to take this opportunity to particularly note the efforts of the Japanese government, who have sent a very clear message to our trading partners that this is not a food-borne illness, that you cannot contract it from consuming pork, and that the importation of American pork and pork products is safe.

We'll continue to work to answer questions from countries that have taken other actions. We're trying to underscore the fact that actions taken to ban or prevent the importation of pork or beef or any other product from the United States is not scientifically based and could result in some serious trade disruptions, but I'll let the trade representative speak more fully about that.

AMB. KIRK: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary and Madame Secretary, thank you for convening us.

I will try not to repeat those points made by Secretary Napolitano or our agricultural secretary. One, we want to first of all extend our sympathies and concern to those families that have been affected. This is first and foremost a health crisis, one that has not risen to the level of alarm, as the president said. But secondly, we want to make sure that a handful of our trading partners don't take advantage of this legitimate concern over public health and engage in behavior that could also damage the world's economy.

We are suffering through the strongest recession that we've seen in quite some time, and any actions, activity engaged by any of our trading partners not based on sound science and not based on our rules-based systems of governing could do extraordinary damage, not just to our economy but to those of other countries as well. And in that regard, we are particularly -- especially grateful to Japan for the strong statement that they have made with regards to pork products from the United States, which are safe.

And so we want to say to considers here and abroad that there is no risk to you, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that there is any link between consuming pork, prepared pork products, and the H1N1 virus.

So for members of the press, Secretary Vilsack and I issued a press statement earlier. I think we have copies of that available for you as well. So in the interest of time, I won't go over that. But I'm prepared to answer your -- any of your questions you might have that can't be answered by the secretary of Homeland Security.

MODERATOR: Okay. We'll take some questions. Pete?

Q Secretary Napolitano, could I ask you to give us some kind of an update of what you're finding on the borders? Are a lot of people who appear to have symptoms -- (inaudible) -- being set aside for these secondary screenings?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: To date, no. It's been very little of that. But again, this is a changing situation. Tomorrow may be a different report. But to date, no.

Q May I ask Secretary Vilsack?

SEC. VILSACK: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative.)

Q What is the point of monitoring the swine population? If you can't get this flu from swine, why check swine at all?

SEC. VILSACK: Because it could impact and affect the industry itself. This is more about the economics of it rather than the human side and human illness side of it.

Q Is it because of the name "swine flu"? I mean, you're not looking at horses or cows or anything else.

SEC. VILSACK: Just -- which is precisely the reason why we have asked, and there has been a response to change the name of this. This really isn't swine flu. It's H1N1 virus. That's very, very important. And it is significant, because there are a lot of hardworking families whose livelihood depends on us conveying this message of safety.

And it's not just simply pork production. It's also grain farmers, because markets are very sensitive. They react to positive news; they also react to negative news. And the livelihoods of a lot of people are at stake here, and we want to reinforce the fact that we're doing everything we possibly can to make sure that our hog industry is sound and safe and to make sure that consumers in this country and around the world know that American products are safe.

MODERATOR: (Robert ?)?

Q Madame Secretary, there's a report out of California that authorities there are investigating a possible death from swine flu, and also, separately, a report out of New York that hundreds of schoolkids may be sick with suspected swine flu. What are you hearing from those two states or other states?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: We have a number of states that are reporting illness. And, as you note, there is a -- several cases, I think two in California. But they have not been confirmed that those are actually a product of H1N1. So those diagnoses are going on.

But let me lay some groundwork here for you. It is very likely that we will see more serious presentations of illness and some deaths as we go through this flu cycle. In a normal seasonal influenza cycle, we would anticipate, across the United States, 35,000 deaths. Of course, this is not a seasonal flu, but I think it would not be unexpected that there will be some more severe illness and some deaths as we proceed forward.

MODERATOR: (Mike ?)?

Q Secretary Vilsack, have you heard any anecdotal stories about this from farmers who have been -- (off mike)?

SEC. VILSACK: The last two days, the pork prices have been down. The last two days, soybean prices have been down.

Yesterday, corn prices went down. So virtually anybody who's in the pork business and the corn business or the soybean business has potentially had an impact or effect. And if this continues, obviously, you have significant potential, which is why it's important to get this right.

This is not a food-borne illness -- virus. It is not correct to refer to it as "swine flu" because there's really -- that's not what this is about. It is about a human-to-human transmission, which is why the Department of Homeland Security is taking mitigation steps to minimize those contacts. And it is important to convey the message that consuming pork or pork products will not cause and cannot cause the illnesses that we're dealing with. So it's a very important message to send in terms of the economics of this.

And I think Ambassador Kirk's absolutely right about this. Obviously, we're concerned about people's safety, but we're also concerned about the impact on the economy of these farm families.

Q (Off mike) -- quarantine stations. Have they been used at all so far? Has anything -- (off mike)?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: There have not -- you're talking about the 19 quarantine stations in the airports? To my knowledge, they have not yet been used. But we have sent guidance and protocols out to our TSA workers and also customs and border protection workers who are at our airports who have international entrants of what to look for and what to screen for. So they are prepared to use them.

Q Are you keeping track of how many -- (off mike) -- set aside for observation right now --

SEC. NAPOLITANO: We're collecting -- we are collecting data. But again, I think our best estimate right now is that we are at the beginning of what could be a long flu cycle. And we may see a period of interruption; that is to say that because we're at the beginning of the summer, this particular outbreak may die off naturally and we may see a resurgence again in the fall. So we're in this for the long haul. That's why we've now set up on a semi-permanent basis as we go through this H1N1 outbreak an interagency structure to move us forward. That's why we've got state and local public health and also other authorities working now with us on a daily basis, because this is going to be a marathon.

Q With the distribution of the antiviral drug, are you providing guidelines to the states about who should get it -- health care workers -- besides those affected? And also, are you seeing any signs that the general public are trying to get ahold of Tamiflu or other antiviral drugs sort of prophylactically? And how might that affect the policy?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Yes. Some of that may be better addressed to the CDC, in terms of the Tamiflu and the Relenza. But after the Department of Health and Human Services issued the public health declaration on Sunday, that allowed for the issuance of a subsequent emergency authorization. What that means is -- that's an FDA-related declaration so that Tamiflu, for example, could be prescribed to a child who's younger than one year old, which normally would not be the case. So that's all in place right now.

Who actually is getting Tamiflu and how it's going out, I don't have the answer right now, but I can tell you, as a former governor, that at the state and local level, most states have a pandemic flu plan. And part of that plan, of course, is how medicine and other things are distributed.


Q Have the CDC protocols for screening changed between yesterday and today at all? And are you seeing any outbreaks or suspicious symptoms at ICE detention centers?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: The answer is no to the first question.

On the second question, we had some suspected cases with regard to a group of detainees, but it turns out their illness was not H1N1.

MODERATOR: (Spencer ?).

Q Is the U.S. considering requiring additional diagnostic testing of travelers before they enter the U.S., such as (air ?) travelers? And will the U.S. provide Tamiflu or other medicines to Mexico? If so, would it come from civilian, military, other stockpiles?

Just a follow-up, if I could -- (off mike) -- questions. Will it be up to the states to determine when an individual can get medicine? Will supplies be made available prophylactically? And who decides how much a state gets?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Last question first. Primarily the state allocation is based on population. But again, we are distributing first to states that have had confirmed instances.

With regard to the second question, we have no requests from other countries for Tamiflu right now. The World Health Organization has its own stockpile of antivirals. I think they have something like 150 million courses there. And so I don't know whether they've received any requests to date.

Give me your first question again. I was going backwards.

MODERATOR (?): (Inaudible) -- like an eight-part question, (Spencer ?).

Q Additional testing -- long follow-up. Additional testing of travelers before they enter the U.S., considering that for air passengers?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: The answer is, not today. But again, we will proceed on a day-to-day basis, and if that changes, we'll, of course, immediately let the public know.

Q To follow up, who makes the decision on whether people can get medicine? And do they have to be sick before they can get it?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: There are, as I said, in response to an earlier question -- states by and large have pandemic plans. And public- health authorities have plans for medicine distribution.

But right now given the size of the stockpile, we have the 50 million courses in the national stockpile. The states themselves have something like another 23 million courses; not doses, courses. And I believe the Department of Defense has another 7 million courses.

So right now we have the supply to meet the demand. And I believe, and you can address this to the CDC, but I believe they're in discussion, with the manufacturer, to ramp up more production of the antivirals.

Q Do you think you're doing enough to protect the airports right now with the airport screenings? The World Health Organization's avian flu expert said this morning that he thought that those screenings were just for show and not really effective.

(Cross talk.)

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Well, I think, he was responding to the issue about closing the borders. And what he was saying in the context was that that is not going to mitigate or contain this virus. But our recommendations and the things we are doing, on screening, match what the WHO and other groups have recommended.

We're following the advice of the public-health specialists. We're listening to the scientists, the epidemiologists, primarily at CDC. We are matching their advice. And then our job, across many departments, is to implement that across Agriculture, Trade and across, of course, Homeland Security.

(Cross talk.)

Q Have you spoken with your Chinese or Russian counterparts about pork products?

AMB. KIRK: We have not. I was scheduled to have a call with my counterpart from Russia. But I delayed that in order to be here. But we'll be reaching out and talking, with all of those countries that have taken steps, thus far, to limit the importation of American products.


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