Swine Flu Snafu: Ernst & Young Episode Reveals Pandemic Panic

Lessons of SARS, Mad Cow show public panic around disease is unpredictable.

ByABC News
April 27, 2009, 4:32 PM

April 28, 2009— -- As the swirling national media coverage of swine flu nears the end of its first full week, signs are emerging that a certain degree of panic may be gripping the public.

While the official case tally in the United States hovers at 64, according to data presented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today, even suspected cases are edging their way into the public eye. A spokesperson for the accounting firm Ernst & Young announced that a female employee in their Manhattan office was confirmed to have swine flu. A few hours later, the announcement was rescinded.

"Based on new information, we can no longer confirm that an Ernst & Young employee who works in the Five Times Square building has a verified case of swine flu," spokesman Charles Perkins said. "Out of an abundance of caution, we have taken appropriate steps to protect the health of our employees."

But when does an "abundance of caution" become an overabundance?

Primary care physicians across the country report that they are receiving a deluge of calls from patients worried that they, too, have swine flu.

"I saw one patient this morning who asked whether he could have the swine flu, but really has a viral gastroenteritis," Curt Hawkinson, a Salem, Ore.-based physician assistant told ABC News on Monday. "That patient didn't have a fever, cough, sore throat, et cetera, and he hadn't traveled recently."

Hawkinson said that another patient that same day came to him "absolutely convinced" that he had the swine flu.

"We'll test him and see if he does, but my index of suspicion is pretty low," Hawkinson said. "That's one of the issues with this--it can look just every other respiratory illness.

In Texas, a state where swine flu's presence has already been confirmed, the fear of swine flu is perhaps even more pronounced.

Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Tex.-based pediatrician and author of Baby 411, said that his office has received "tons of phone calls" from worried parents who are "wondering what to look for, wanting their child tested -- patients who don't even have flu like symptoms."

"One parent asked for Tamiflu for all his family," Brown added. "I'm sure that won't be the last person that asks."

Meanwhile, pharmacists report that demand for the anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza has skyrocketed.

"We purchased a large quantity of Tamiflu and Relenza over the weekend in anticipation of a run on both drugs," said Des Moines, Iowa-based pharmacist John Forbes. "I am seeing the major drug wholesalers are running out of product... I did receive an email from McKesson Drug Company and they are now limiting quantities that pharmacies can purchase."

Other pharmacists report that facial masks, too, are flying from the shelves.