Flu panic may be ending soon

With signs that the H1N1 flu isn't as dangerous as initially feared, the administration tries to calm the public.

Published May 4, 2009 9:29PM (EDT)

The government is starting to ratchet down the frenzy over swine flu -- er, H1N1 flu -- amid signs the virus may not be the horrible deadly outbreak it seems to be if you watch too much cable news.

"We have started to see encouraging signs that this virus may be mild and that its spread may be limited," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said this afternoon at a briefing on the flu. "We are cautiously optimistic that this particular strain will not be more severe than a normal seasonal flu outbreak."

Of course, that doesn't exactly make the flu something to, er, sneeze at; the normal seasonal flu kills more than 30,000 people every year just in the United States. But with Mexican authorities saying the virus has peaked there, Napolitano indicated that the flu may be less of a threat than feared at first.

"The severity of the flu -- how sick you get -- it's not stronger than regular seasonal flu," she said. There is still some concern within the administration that the virus will reappear in a worse form when the fall flu season starts up, but epidemiologists aren't sure how likely that is.

The World Health Organization will still probably raise the pandemic threat level to 6, the highest on the organization's scale. But Napolitano tried to head off a panic about that before it happened. The WHO level "does not mean has become any more severe, it means it has spread to a number of countries," she said. "The level is about geography, not severity."

The administration has been trying to walk a line between getting out ahead of the flu and keeping people from freaking out about it (sometimes without much help from Vice President Biden). President Obama opened his primetime press conference last week, originally scheduled to mark his 100th day in office, with a reminder to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough. The Centers for Disease Control and DHS have been doing daily press briefings on the virus.

But if the flu isn't any more dangerous than the annual seasonal variety, there's no reason for anybody -- including the government -- to live in terror about it. So look for the administration to keep trying to send reassuring messages. Even Biden -- who had gone way off-message on Thursday and warned people not to take public transit or fly -- was back on track. Literally. Both before and after an event in Wilmington, Del., this morning, Biden rode Amtrak between his old hometown and his new one.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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