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Press Briefing With Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

Subject: H1N1 Flu Virus Developments Also Participating: Jon Krohmer, M.D., Acting Assistant Secretary For Health Affairs, Department Of Homeland Security

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STAFF: All right. Welcome.

Q Thank you.

STAFF: The secretary will conduct her daily briefing on 2009 H1N1 virus, and Dr. Krohmer is here for any medical specific questions. And then she will take some questions.

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Thank you, Sean (sp).

Good afternoon. Let me begin by saying that this is the last day we plan to hold a daily briefing on the H1N1 flu situation. We will have briefings on an as-needed basis as new details warrant.

So today I want to talk about where we are and then where we are going. The CDC has confirmed 642 cases of H1N1 flu in 41 states. Additionally, CDC has begun reporting probable cases as well, which now stand at 845 in 42 states.

Sadly, we also learned of the second death in the United States from H1N1 flu. This death was reported in Texas. We are respecting the privacy of that individual and that individual's family, and our thoughts and our prayers are with them.

Despite this loss and despite the fact that others may still come, the science tells us that this is most likely a milder strain than we first feared. As such, yesterday the CDC revised their school closure guidance, and the doors to classrooms are and will be reopening across the country.

But as I said yesterday, now is not the time to declare victory. We continue to have cases. We continue to vigilantly monitor the situation. And even if the encouraging signs we are now seeing hold firm, we know that this virus could come back stronger in the fall.

So, where are we going? In the coming weeks and months ahead, we will be involved in an ongoing series of actions to ensure individuals, families, government, private-sector entities are well- prepared for what may come next.

First is to work in a collective manner with the public health community and our international partners, closely monitoring the H1N1 flu to determine if it becomes more contagious and more severe than this initial outbreak. The Southern Hemisphere is entering its flu season now. We will pay close attention to the virus there.

Next, the CDC has already taken the first step on the vaccine by isolating the H1N1 strain. Once a reference strain has been developed, which CDC is now working on, they can at that time share it with pharmaceutical companies to produce an initial vaccine to test.

As we are monitoring the progress of the vaccine, we'll also be taking a number of concurrent steps to enhance the nation's readiness for a potentially severe pandemic. Right now we don't know if this will be the case, but we want to have -- we have an obligation to err on the side of safety.

Thus we are working across the federal government to ensure that plans for pandemic are revised in light of our experience these past 10 days; that we are as prepared and have thought through as many issues as possible, should this virus re-present itself in the fall.

Next, we will continue working with state, local, tribal and territorial health officials and emergency managers, because they too have now seen, after this round of outbreak, what gaps they may have in their systems, and we want to work with them on that and what needs to be present.

Next, we will continue to work with the private sector to make sure they have plans in place should a pandemic threaten their workforce. Again, over the past days we've had unprecedented contacts with the private sector. Indeed we've had conference calls with more than a thousand participants.

But I think what came out of those calls is that many in the private sector really have knocked through what they need to have in place, to continue their business operations, should they experience a high rate of absenteeism. So that work will continue as well.

Next we will continue to meet -- with President Obama, Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan and other Cabinet members -- to go over additional areas where the federal government's response can be even more robust than it was this past 10 days.

Finally again this is an era where we want to lean forward. This is an area where we are not declaring victory -- cautious action might be a phrase we could use -- but where we need to continue to lean forward.

And individuals and families, in addition to businesses and governments and public health authorities, individuals and families have a shared responsibility here as well, the responsibility to stay home from work, keep your child home from school, if you are sick with the flu; to cover your mouth when you cough but cover it with your sleeve, not with your hand; to take common-sense steps to protect yourself and your family, including washing your hands regularly and thinking through what you would do, in your family, if for example, in the fall, the schools need to close again for some period of time.

We hope that is not the case. But again part of being prepared for flu is thinking ahead of the flu and staying ahead of the flu. And that is what we intend to accomplish. So with that, where we are and what we intend to do, over the next weeks and months, let me just close my comments and take questions, if you have them.


Q In terms of where the department is now, you were saying early on that we were sort of ahead of the designation, from the World Health Organization, of level 4, level 5 or so forth.

In the next several days and weeks, will we be going back down to a different sort of sense of preparedness? And what might that involve? Or will we just sort of stay where we are now, until the fall comes?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: I think we will stay where we are, in the sense of preparedness, and add to it, really begin thinking about what happens, if the flu that comes back next season, the H1N1, when it comes back, if and when it comes back, but I think we anticipate that it will come back.

If it comes back in a more severe form, what steps can we be prepared to take? And who will have what responsibilities? So we are not standing down in any stretch.

Q In terms of school closings, one of the points of school closings of course is to keep children more or less isolated, so they don't catch it from each other.

But we've seen in some of these examples that communities where they close schools, the children end up in the park, playing baseball together. Or they have, you know, shared activities.

What lessons can be learned from how that works, in terms of individual parents and communities being ready to have the schools close, without the children recongregating somewhere else?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: You're exactly right.

I think one lesson is, we need to be even stronger in our message that when a school closes, it's for the children to remain at home and not to go and congregate somewhere else.

The line I was using was, it's not for them to go to the mall, to the baseball game, to the dance or whatever other activity is involved. We need to continue that messaging.

And then families need to think about, if you're school-age child is going to be home, for a week or two, what are the arrangements to be made for that? And schools need to be thinking through how they make sure that students continue learning during that period.

Secretary Duncan was here, I think it was last Friday, talking about teachers needing to have lesson plans ready to go home, thinking about how the learning process continues even during the course of a flu epidemic --1 just as we anticipate business operations need to continue. So that's the kind of work now that needs to be made stronger, based on what we've learned so far.

Q What should working parents do? If both parents in the household work, and their child's going to be home from school for 10 days, two weeks, who knows how long, what advice would you give to them?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Again, it's going to -- it's going to vary parent by parent, household by household. It may be that they need to be thinking through right now, and talking with their own employers about, being able to do some of their own work at home while their children are at home, or being able to telecommute from home while their children are at home. That's the very kind of specific sort of thinking that we are now asking Americans to do.

Q Can I ask you one other question? There's some indication that this particular form of the flu seems to especially affect younger people. The median age, I think the CDC says, is 15 -- is that right? Thirteen to 15?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Sixteen, I thought, but yes. Same -- yeah.

Q But what does that -- does that tell us anything? What do we -- what conclusions do we draw from that?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: I'm going to let the doctor answer that one.

DR. KROHMER: Well, it's hard to come up with any definitive conclusions. And as we talked about the other day, I think that's one of the bits of information that the CDC will try and identify as it goes through its investigation of the outbreak that occurred both in the United States and elsewhere.

You know, there is a possibility that young children may have not been exposed to as many strains of influenza viruses, and if there's some cross-reactivity, some cross-immunity, that may contribute to older folks' potentially being a little bit more protected. But that's very speculative at this point.

STAFF: All right --

Q May I just ask you one other question, Madame Secretary? What is your overall assessment of how well not the government, perhaps, but the public at large responded in this last week-plus, in terms of the flu?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: I think by and large the public responded very well. They acted responsibly. They -- we saw some polling -- I think it was from Harvard -- that showed that they understood the need to keep children home or themselves home if they had the flu, the need to wash hands regularly, cover your mouth when you cough -- you know, the basic health messages we kept sending every day.

And I think overall it was a -- I want to say healthy response. That's probably not the right word to use in the circumstance. But I think overall it was a very good response.

That being said, I think now people can begin to appreciate when we say plan for the future, what specifically that means. And it kind of goes back to your earlier question, what should parents do. Well, think about, if your kids are going to be home in the fall, if this outbreak were to come back, if it were going to require more school closures, how would you manage that?

Q But is there a sense here that the nation has sort of dodged a bullet? And if so, any sense of why?

SEC. NAPOLITANO: No. There's a sense here that we had a new flu strain that came into -- that was in the country; that it spread very rapidly; that it's now in 42 states. That at the outset, we did not know the severity of the virus, that we relied on the CDC to give us guidance, and that was the right thing to do. We leaned forward. We stayed ahead of the process. Now we're going to continue to lean forward and plan in the hope that we don't see the flu come back -- this strain of the flu come back in the fall, but that it very well could.

STAFF: All right. Thanks very much.

SEC. NAPOLITANO: Thanks much.


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