By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
May 5, 2009 - Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the severity and reach of the H1N1 flu virus is encouraging, the secretary of homeland security noted during a briefing here yesterday. "As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted over the weekend, we have started to see encouraging signs that this virus may be mild and its spread may be limited," Janet Napolitano said. "We are, therefore, cautiously optimistic."
The secretary also said that despite encouraging signs, the nation may not have seen the last of the virus when the current outbreak abates. "We also have in mind that H1N1 flu could die down and return later again this fall when the flu season enters back in full swing," she said.
The United States has documented 286 confirmed cases of H1N1 flu in 36 states. The cases are mild and haven't required hospitalization. In fact, Napolitano said, many of the patients already have recovered. It's still possible, however, that the World Health Organization will raise its pandemic alert to Level 6, she said.
"This would not be a surprise, nor would it affect our preparation efforts, since we have been preparing since the first appearance of H1N1 flu as if this will be a Level 6 [outbreak]," the homeland security secretary said.
A rise in the pandemic alert level from the WHO does not mean the virus has become any more severe, Napolitano explained. Rather, it means it has spread to a number of countries.
"In other words, the number is about geography, not severity," she said.
Napolitano urged individuals, families, the private sector and governments to realize their responsibilities and take steps to mitigate its spread. Updated information and guidance can be found on the CDC Web site.
People should be vigilant about hand washing and covering their mouths when they cough, not with their hand, but with their sleeves, she said, and families need to think ahead. For instance, she asked, what would parents do if their child was released from school had to remain at home?
Businesses need to plan for a large degree of absenteeism, Napolitano said, and all levels of government need to dust off their plans for dealing with a large-scale event.
"I think it's important to note that the federal government, state governments and local governments have been planning for a number of years in case we faced a situation like the current one," she said. "Those plans are serving us well now, because we're actually seeing how well they work and also [are revealing] areas where we need to improve."
Regardless of the direction the outbreak seems to be moving in, Napolitano said, the government will continue to closely monitor the virus for the coming days and weeks.