WASHINGTON - Some health officials are suggesting it's time to take the panic out of the pandemic.
"The severity of illness we're seeing in this country is very similar to what we see with seasonal flu," CDC Acting Director Dr. Richard Besser said Monday. "And that's encouraging information."
So far, some 300,000 kids are out of closed-down schools. In New York, St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens is reopening, though it had dozens of confirmed cases.but a Long Island district is closing all six of its schools because of H1N1 hitting at least three students. Elizabeth Marino, the Deer Park School superintendent, said, "You can imagine the level of concern that has been expressed by our families."
Officials there don't think they're overreacting. Dr. Humayun Chaundhry, the Suffolk County health commissioner, points to the statistics. The majority of the cases in the United States that have been probable have ended up being confirmed."
Sudden Rise Expected
And the number of confirmed swine flu cases reported in the U.S. is expected to suddenly rise. But, that's no reason to panic. It's just the paperwork catching up.
At least 1,000 people around the world have now caught the H1N1 or swine flu virus in 18 countries. In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases jumped to 286 - the probable cases to more than 700, but health officials expect a sudden rise in those numbers.
That's not because the number is actually going up dramatically, but because reports on cases from many states are just now starting to flow into the Centers for Disease Control.
36 States Have Reported Cases
Thirty-six states so far have reported cases, but a top CDC official says the H1N1 virus is probably in all 50 states at this point, and for the first time she used the word widespread.
"The extent of spread of this virus in the U.S. and around the world is widespread," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, Interim Deputy Director For Public Health.
That doesn't mean everyone's infected, just that the virus has by now likely migrated to all the states.
Handshakes and Hugs Replaced
Meanwhile, at churches and graduation ceremonies, traditional handshakes and hugs were often replaced by less germ-spreading taps on the shoulder and hearty greetings from a safe distance.
"We had communion in our first service, and we had hand sanitizer and we made kind of a demonstration of washing our hands before we touch the elements," said Pastor Jim Standiford, First United Methodist Church of San Diego.
"I think they're sensible precautions to take," said parishioner Marjorie McGovern.
All that wins praise from top officials and encouragement that everyone take such practical measures.
"I don't think we're out of the woods yet," Schuchat explained. "But I do think that people are cooperating, and working together in a really effective way, to try to limit the impact this virus has."
"If you're sick, stay home," Janet Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security Secretary said during an appearance on NBC's Meet The Press. "If your child is sick keep them home. Cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands."
Killer Flu Pandemic of 1918 Started Out Mild and Weak
So far, though, health officials have been encouraged that so many of the confirmed cases have been mild as compared to the deadly flu pandemic of 1918 that killed at least 40 million people. "We do not see the markers for virulence that were seen in the 1918 virus," said Nancy Cox, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu chief, said.
And some are seeing signs the spread of this virus may already be winding down. But one expert warned the 1918 pandemic not only started out mild and weak, but almost disappeared for awhile. World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl said, "In 1918, that pandemic started out as a very mild case of disease in the spring of 1918. The virus or cases of the disease almost completely disappeared over the summer, only to reappear in the autumn of 1918 with the vengeance which we all know."
One worrisome factor with the H1N1 virus is how hard it's hit teenagers and young adults. That was a mark of 1918. Dr. Amir Afkhami, a medical historian and researcher, pointed out, "The 1918 influenza pandemic really targeted the young and the healthy. This was different than the yearly pandemics, or even the mini pandemics that had occurred prior to 1918 and subsequently, and this really seared a mark in our medical memory."
The 1918 pandemic managed to spread its virus all over the world. Some researchers wonder how much faster a virus might sweep the planet now in this age of rapid international travel. "The big pandemic in 1918, obviously people travelled to Mexico. It took them a week by boat; now it takes them a couple of hours on a plane," Dr. Brian McCloskey, the British Health Protection Agency's London region director, said. "So we always wondered what would happen and what we're seeing is, it's spread very rapidly from country to country."
"I think we have to continue in an uncertain situation to be aggressive," the CDC's Besser said on another Sunday news-broadcast, ABC's This Week. "And that's what we're doing."
Swine flu Hits Actual Swine
Meanwhile, there's a new twist on this strain of swine flu. Canada now has a case of a human passing it to actual swine -- a bunch of pigs at an Alberta farm. Some health officials have worried if many pigs caught the virus, it could mutate into a much deadlier strain.
And some people, like the Egyptian officials who ordered all Egypt's pigs slaughtered, are worried humans could catch the virus from eating pork that came from infected pigs. The Canadian chief veterinary officer says not so.
"I want to be clear right now, that there is no food safety concern related to this finding," said Dr. Brian Evans.
The pork industry is frustrated with some countries banning pork from the U.S. Industry officials quote medical authorities who categorically state people cannot get the flu from eating properly cooked pork.