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California and Swine Flu

by Indy, published

The problem with a state of emergency is that it sounds so urgent.

So when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency last Tuesday due to swine flu, it immediately bestowed the outbreak a greater sense of urgency than it had at that point. Or has at this point, for that matter - there still are only 14 confirmed cases in the state.

The declaration was a strictly bureaucratic move - something the governor had to do to request federal money and to allow better response coordination among county and state agencies.

Yet some view "emergency" as synonymous to panic.

Hospitals in some parts of the state have seen 50 percent spikes in emergency room visits. Patients have included one woman whose son took her in after she had a hot flash - but no fever.

"I am concerned about it," the son told The Modesto Bee. "I have a 5-year-old son in school. It is good to be cautious about it."

Cautious, yes. Ridiculous, no.

"I would say half the people we are seeing are afraid they have swine flu," a doctor told The Bee. "They don't have the trio of symptoms -- fever, respiratory illness and a connection to Mexico."

Talk about mass hypochondria based on something that does, after all, happen on an annual basis.

It's called the flu. Some experts think the swine flu strain isn't nearly as virulent as what we see in an average winter.

Yes, this one is later than normal and, no, the vaccine distributed last fall won't fully protect you from it. Not that the vaccine has ever fully protected patients from all strains of the flu. The mix is based on the previous flu season - viruses being what they are, they tend to mutate and change over time, often making past patterns irrelevant.

Part of the panic is a side effect to living in the information age, where news can fly around the world far more quickly than the virus is spreading.

And when the news breaks on a slow news day - as did the Centers for Disease Control announcement Sunday of a national state of emergency - it tends to dominate coverage that day and on into the start of the work week.

The World Health Organization's hyperbolic language isn't helping much either. Wednesday, WHO changed swine flu's status to Phase 5, meaning officials believe an international pandemic could be imminent.

"Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world," the WHO director general said in a news release. "On the positive side, the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history."

It seems that people who have read "The Stand," Stephen King's post-apocalyptic novel about a superflu that decimated the world, a few too many times are missing the second part of that statement.

The official response - in California, the United State and worldwide - is appropriate.

Thursday, as one of her first official acts at health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius announced that the government would buy an additional 13 million flu treatments, There already are 73 million stockpiled.

Schwarzenegger, though, already had made the most common sense move of all: Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, wash your hands and stay home if you're sick, he advised.

Folks must have missed those points in their rush to stockpile surgical masks.

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