Published Online: April 28, 2009

U.S. Cautious, Not Alarmed, as Swine Flu Cases Climb

A handful of schools around the country have closed over swine flu fears and some people are wearing masks, but it's mostly business as usual in the U.S., even at border crossings into Mexico.

While Asian countries deployed thermal sensors at airports to screen passengers from North America for signs of fever, there have been no extra screenings at the U.S. border with the country considered ground zero for the outbreak. Swine flu has killed over 150 people in Mexico, where schools have been canceled nationwide.

At the main pedestrian border crossing between El Paso and Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, people entering the country who said they felt unwell were questioned about their symptoms, but there were no reports of anyone refused entry.

Jorge Juarez and Miranda Carnero, both 18, crossed the border wearing bright blue masks. "It's just a precaution," said Juarez, who lives in El Paso and drew a smiley face on his mask.

Passengers from a Mexico City flight that arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey said they were surprised customs officials did nothing more than hand them an informational flier.

"Nobody cared when we got off the plane. We were surprised," said Lourdes Pizano, 51, of Montgomery Township, N.J., who was returning from a visit to relatives in Mexico City. "We thought they were going to bring us into a different gate, or segregate us."

"Everyone's afraid. But when we got here, they said, 'Welcome to America. You don't need that,'" said Alejandro Meneses of Fairlawn, N.J., pointing to a paper mask hanging from his neck.

There were 50 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States: 28 at a private high school in New York City, 13 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio. Only one American case has led to a hospitalization.

'No Cause for Alarm'

President Barack Obama on Monday characterized the U.S. cases as a cause for concern but not "a cause for alarm." The federal government said travel warnings for trips to Mexico would remain in place as long as swine flu is detected.

The Obama administration on Tuesday defended its "passive surveillance" policy to deal with the threat, saying that it's measured, cautious border monitoring makes sense.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that more draconian enforcement steps are not yet necessary, even as she acknowledged that officials "anticipate confirmed cases in more states." She reiterated President Barack Obama's stance that people are justifiably concerned but need not be alarmed by it.

"We anticipate that there will be confirmed cases in more states as we go through the coming days," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday.

Scattered protective steps were being taken across the U.S. A few schools were closed—in Cibolo and New Braunfels, Texas; Claremont and Mira Mesa, Calif.; and Columbia, S.C.—and residents of Guadalupe County, outside San Antonio, were asked to avoid public gatherings and stay home if they are ill.

Pharmacies in Manhattan reported that paper face masks were selling by the box. One pharmacy owner said he had to order more from his wholesale supplier for the first time since the SARS epidemic six years ago.

Security guards at all entrances of the University of Chicago Medical Center required anyone walking in to use a liquid disinfectant. At Rush University Medical Center, anyone seeking treatment for fever, runny nose and coughs was being tested for flu with nasal swabs.

Elsewhere, there were signs of growing unease among the public, even in places where there was no immediately known cause for alarm.

Students at a Chicago school were instructed not to shake hands with anyone, and Southern Illinois University urged students to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouths when coughing. There were no known swine flu cases in Illinois.

And in New Mexico, which also had no reported cases, health officials were so besieged by calls from concerned citizens that they set up a swine flu hot line.

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