It's a dramatic start to a flu season as cities, states, and the federal government ratchet up warnings and precautions against the H1N1 virus.
On Tuesday, President Obama said that while swine flu vaccine will be voluntary, the government will "strongly recommend" that people get it (the first batches of the new vaccine are expected in October). On Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said people "should expect a big influx" of cases in coming months.
Given that the swine flu has not been as serious as first feared, the administration has urged that schools strongly resist closing their doors.
But at least one state, Massachusetts, is looking at more drastic measures to contain a possible pandemic. The "Pandemic Response Bill," which passed the Senate in April and is now awaiting House approval, would allow police officers, under orders from health officials, to arrest those who refuse to be quarantined.
Still, most health officials are taking a cautionary approach. New York City has announced it will offer free vaccination shots to all school age children. Even the Sesame Street character "Elmo" has been recruited to encourage kids to wash their hands.
Expecting the worst?
Last week, a White House group of researchers warned last week that as many as 1.8 million Americans could get seriously sick, though some at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta called those numbers a stretch – unless the virus mutates into a more virulent form.
"It is possible that current flu models may be overestimating or underestimating the number of people who will contract flu over the next several months," says Kathryn Jacobsen, an epidemiologist at George Mason University in Washington, in an e-mail. "An overly pessimistic projection may cause unnecessary stress and waste resources. An overly optimistic projection may leave governments, hospitals, businesses, schools, and households unprepared."
So far, 540 Americans – including a South Carolina boy this week, and two pregnant women in Florida – have died. About 30,000 mostly elderly Americans die from the seasonal flu each year. However, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp survey released Wednesday found that a majority of Americans are confident the federal government will be able to prevent an epidemic.
Concern as schools open
On Wednesday, the CDC reported an uptick in swine flu cases among school-aged children in the Southeast, where students return to school earlier than other regions. "School is back and people are beginning to pay attention," said Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
There are concerns that hospitals and clinics could become overwhelmed, Ms. Sebelius added, especially if flooded by what she called "the worried well" that would take resources away from those with actual symptoms.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, meanwhile, applauded ongoing efforts by states and municipalities to prepare for a potential influx of flu cases.
"What you're seeing around the country is an outbreak of common sense," Mr. Duncan told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Click here for more details about how schools are preparing for possible outbreaks of swine flu.
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