This week the White House released estimates of how a "swine flu" epidemic in the US might play out in the fall and winter. The numbers of potentially ill and dying might have seemed alarming, but as the authors of the report to the president emphasized: "This is a planning scenario, not a prediction."
That's an important caveat that the public needs to remember – if it's not drowned out by the fearful din of the media and others repeating the scenario as fact.
When this virus surfaced in Mexico last April, anxiety spread faster around the globe than was necessary, in hindsight. On NBC's "Today" show, Vice President Joe Biden went way beyond the official line and advised avoiding confined spaces, such as planes. That in turn set off klaxons at the White House. What? Bring air travel to a halt? Subways, too?
The administration quickly backpedaled, not only because of the economic implications of Mr. Biden's unguarded remark, but also because he simply overreacted – as many people tend to do. As it turns out, the concerns about extremely high fatality rates were overblown.
The issue is "not that the virus is more deadly than other flu strains," but that it is "likely to infect more people," the White House said in a statement this week. For that reason, the federal government is trying to plan for a "plausible scenario," without causing panic that might lead to a contagion of fear.
It's a measured tone that reflects a learning curve from the spring, and further back in history. In 1976, the White House urged that everyone get a vaccine when swine flu threatened the nation. More than 40 million people were inoculated; about 25 people died from the vaccine. The flu epidemic never materialized in the US.
Last spring, more than 700 schools closed because of the scare over the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. Now federal officials say closing schools should be a last resort. Instead they stress less drastic measures – strict hygiene, staying at home if you're unwell, staying informed. They're urging employers to relax sick-leave policies and allow telecommuting.
The federal government seems to be striking the right balance – steering the public away from alarm, while trying to plan and prepare (though federal officials admit a voluntary swine flu vaccine won't be ready until mid-October).
For the public to hear this measured tone, however, others will need to carry it forward, including the media, school and university leaders, employers, and state and local health officials.
As Dr. Anne Schuchat, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cautioned this week, "we can't really predict" how much swine flu there will be. Federal officials must plan, but the public need not panic.