Friday, May 1, 2009

Administration Aide Suspected of Contracting Swine Flu

Man May Have Passed Virus to Family Members in Anne Arundel County

Washington Post Staff Writers 
Thursday, April 30, 2009; 3:31 PM

An Energy Department employee who was part of the advance team for President Obama's recent trip to Mexico is suspected of having contracted the swine flu virus and transmitting it to his family in Anne Arundel County, the White House said today.

The man is on the security staff of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who traveled with Obama to Mexico on April 16. He is believed to have transmitted the highly contagious virus to his wife, son and nephew, press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

The woman and young boys appear to be the three Anne Arundel County residents who, officials said yesterday, have tested positive as "probable" victims of the virus.

Neither the president nor Chu experienced any symptoms of the virus, Gibbs said, and White House doctors do not think Obama should be tested.

The staffer worked a dinner Obama attended in Mexico City, Gibbs said. After the White House learned of his exposure to the virus late last night, Gibbs said, the man "was asked specifically if he ever came within six feet of the president" during the dinner.

"The answer," Gibbs told reporters, "was 'no.' "

In the Anne Arundel community of Severna Park, news of the White House connection to the virus spread quickly among parents at Folger McKinsey Elementary, where the security staffer's children attend school. The wife of the staffer reportedly posted a Facebook account, people who had seen it said, describing how her husband had contracted the virus while in Mexico as part of the president's trip.

Although Obama recommended last night that schools with suspected cases of swine flu strongly consider closing, Anne Arundel officials elected to open Folger McKinsey today after a thorough scrubbing overnight.

Parents said many families kept their children home out of fear of contamination, however, and some of those who did come to school said they had done so only after careful thought.

"We felt it was safe," said Matt Myers, who walked his 5th and 2nd graders to school after a long family discussion about the right thing to do. "You don't want to be alarmist, but you want to explain what it is and how they should wash their hands. It's tough because you don't want to scare them."

Gibbs said the man, whose name was not released, traveled to Mexico City April 13 as part of Chu's security advance team. He began feeling ill April 16, the day Obama arrived in the Mexican capital for an overnight visit. The staffer developed a fever on April 17, but felt better by the next day, Gibbs said, and returned to the United States April 18.

Over the next several days, the man is believed to have passed the virus to his wife, son and nephew, whose preliminary test results were positive and are awaiting confirmation from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Gibbs said the administration employee also was tested for the virus but the results were negative, likely because he had already recovered completely by the time he underwent the tests. He has returned to work, Gibbs said, and his relatives also suffered only mild symptoms and have regained their health.

A World Bank employee who lives in Maryland but also was recently in Mexico -- where the disease is believed to have originated -- also has tested positive in a preliminary screening, bank officials said today. So have three people in Baltimore County. Like the preliminary results from the three Anne Arundel County victims, test results for those four victims have been sent to the CDC to be confirmed.

The World Bank said its employee came to work in downtown Washington on April 20, after being exposed to the virus on a business trip to Mexico. To limit the spread of the disease, the World Bank said, about 80 bank employees who may have come into contact with the infected man have been told to work from home until officials determine who should be tested.

In Delaware, health officials say they have confirmed four cases of the virus at the University of Delaware, and have sent probably positive results for 12 other individuals to the CDC.

No residents of the District or Virginia so far are known to have contracted the disease, which has caused at least one death in the United States. A toddler from Mexico City died of complications from the virus in Houston on Monday after crossing the border to see relatives.

The link to the flu epidemic is the second health-related brouhaha to come out of Obama's brief trip to Mexico en route to the three-day Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. A museum official who escorted Obama through an anthropological exhibit died of health problems unrelated to the flu a week later, and Gibbs earlier this week went to great lengths to explain that "the president's health was never in any danger."

"He has not exhibited any symptoms; neither has anybody traveling with him," Gibbs said Monday in reference to a question about swine flu.

In Anne Arundel, officials pulled 16 janitors from other schools to scrub the Folger McKinsey building for eight hours so it could open this morning, using Spectra 9, "the strongest disinfectant we have that's nontoxic," said operations supervisor Walter George.

Workers were slated to disinfect buses today and replace all school air filters, George said. County Executive John R. Leopold and School Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell greeted parents at the school this morning and assured them it was safe. But buses arrived looked unusually empty, and some parents said as many as half the children seemed to be absent.

"I'm sure our kids have been exposed already. But I'm keeping mine home because I'm outraged," said Kelly Troy, who has two students at Folger McKinsey. "We are all going to be touched with this if they continue to keep the schools open."

In addition to the Anne Arundel family, Maryland officials yesterday described those believed to have the virus as three people in Baltimore County, including a high school student. It was not clear which of the three is the high school student.

The public should be prepared for more infections as time passes, officials say. Officials continued to urge people to take common-sense precautions, such as frequently washing hands, covering their mouths when coughing and staying home if feeling ill.

"This is not a time for alarm, but rather heightened awareness and care for our families, ourselves and each other," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said.