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Remarks by Secretary Napolitano at Today's Media Briefing on the H1N1 Flu Outbreak

Release Date: 
May 5, 2009

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
Contact: 202-282-8010

Secretary Napolitano:  First let me explain why we're at FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters]. It's not because of a disaster declaration with respect to the flu. We're here because I had meetings at the White House this afternoon, and in order to accommodate the press's need for time, it was easier to come down here where we had a press availability than to go all the way back up to the NAC [Nebraska Avenue Complex]. So don't read anything into the location other than it was convenient.

But this is our daily briefing to update Americans about our national efforts in respect to the H1N1 flu outbreak. Currently in the United States we have 286 confirmed cases in 36 states. The large majority of these cases are mild flu cases. They have not required hospitalization. Many of the patients already have recovered. 

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] noted over the weekend, we have started to see encouraging signs that this virus may be mild and that its spread may be limited. We are therefore cautiously optimistic, but nevertheless, we realize that this is not the time to rest. We are preparing fully.

We also have in mind that H1N1 flu could die down soon and return later again this fall when the flu season enters back in full swing. This is always a concern with a new strain of a flu virus. We will therefore continue to prepare in the coming months to address that possibility. And as I have said, this effort is a marathon, not a sprint.

In addition, it is possible that the World Health Organization [WHO] will raise its pandemic alert level to level six. 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 level six. 

Let me again explain what level six means. A rise in the pandemic alert level from the WHO does not mean that the virus has become any more severe. Rather, it means that it has spread to a number of countries around the globe. In other words, the level is about geography, not severity. But having said that, we will continue to closely monitor the virus for the coming days and the coming weeks. 

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. Those plans are serving us well now because we're actually seeing how well they work and also areas where we need to continue to improve. 

And I want to repeat what I have been saying and what many of us have been saying since H1N1 first appeared. We all have a responsibility here. Individuals have a responsibility to cover your mouth when you cough with your sleeve, not with your hand; to not go to work or send your child to school if the child is sick or you are sick; to wash your hands continuously with water or use an alcohol gel.

Families have responsibilities here beyond just the individual, and that is to think ahead. It's all about preparation. What would you do if your child were released from school for a number of days and had to remain at home? Because, realize, when a school is closed, it's not for the kids to go to the mall or be out; it's for them to stay at home. How would you handle that sort of a situation? What would you do if a caregiver couldn't come to work? Those kinds of questions families should be asking themselves and thinking through because that's good preparation, not just for flu, but for other kinds of outbreaks or disasters that could occur.

Businesses: we have been interacting a lot with the private sector this past week. Indeed, we had conference calls last week. I think one of them had over a thousand private sector participants. But again, businesses need to think through how they would handle a period of severe flu if there were a large degree of absenteeism, if services had to be restricted, and the like. 

And lastly, government at all levels, local, state, and federalÑwe all have plans. Sometimes those plans haven't been dusted off for a while. They need to be. At the federal level, we need to be cognizant of the other demands and strains put on local and state budgets, particularly during this economic downturn. And what we can all do working together to work our way through incidents like we are undergoing now with H1N1.
So--individual, family, private sector, government, everybody has a shared responsibility and a role to play in this effort.

As I've noted, we are cautiously optimistic. The Centers for Disease Control is beginning to look at some of the guidance it has posted on its website. Some of that may be adjusted over the coming days. So my last word here is to make sure that you go to the CDC Web site for information and for guidance because that has changed and will change as we learn more and more about this particular outbreak.

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