Did D.C. Staffer Bring Swine Flu Home?

Confusion over how to prevent catching swine flu spreads as more become ill.

ByABC News
April 30, 2009, 6:21 AM

April 30, 2009 — -- The Obama administration may have had a brush with the swine flu outbreak after a member of the White House advance team on Obama's recent trip to Mexico apparently came down with the disease.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the staff member, whom he did not identify, began to feel ill April 16 after he accompanied Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to Mexico in advance of Obama's arrival. Two days later, Gibbs said the staff member returned to the United States on a United Airlines flight to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

On April 28, the individual's wife, son and nephew tested positive for H1N1, Gibbs said, adding that samples had been sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to determine if it is the same strain of H1N1 that now threatens to spark a global pandemic.

Though President Obama was in Mexico at the same time as this individual, Gibbs said the staff member never came within six feet of the president. Neither Obama nor Chu has shown any symptoms and neither has been tested for the flu.

Gibbs said the staff member likely carried the virus on the flight home from Mexico.

"The family members experienced mild to moderate symptoms, received no medications and recovered," Gibbs said, adding that the individual is back at work today.

The administration staffer tested negative, which Gibbs noted was "likely because so much time had elapsed since the onset of his own symptoms that they would not show up in the test."

Gibbs said he is not aware whether health officials will try to contact people who were on the flight from Mexico with the staff member.

The revelation came on a day that the CDC case count rose to 109 confirmed infections in 11 states. South Carolina was the newest addition to the official list of states affected.

State health officials, however, have reported a number of cases that have not yet been confirmed by the CDC. Adding these results -- including the first two cases in Virginia announced Thursday evening -- would mean a total of at least 134 cases in 19 states.

On Thursday, the swine flu outbreak caused schools in 14 states to shut their doors on more than 160,000 schoolchildren, and additional closures could affect as many as 223,700 students in 17 states.

In total, more than 100 school systems have closed at least one school as the nation tries to stifle the spread of the disease. In Texas Wednesday night, officials announced that the entire Fort Worth school system would be closed through at least May 8 as a precaution, idling 80,000 children in 140 schools.

"We're asking for flexibility, and I'm sure our business community can come up with creative ideas, rotating shifts, without creating hardships on families financially," said Melody Johnson, Fort Worth schools superintendent.

While most Fort Worth parents seem to support the district's decision, experts question if it's necessary to shut down an entire district for a single case of the swine flu.

"It's too soon to tell what's the best approach, but we will be looking at what people are doing, and learning from it as it goes forward," said Julie Gerberding, former head of the CDC.

Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, said that health officials hoped the closures would help stem the spread of the virus in affected states, although he added that it remained to be seen whether the strategy would actually work.

"We want to make sure that school closure is in fact lowering the risk of spread in a community," Besser told "Good Morning America" Thursday. "The goal is not to send the children out into the community."

Vice President Joe Biden said on "GMA" Thursday that he hoped that parents would be able to make adjustments as their children's schools -- and possibly their own workplaces -- shut down to limit the threat of swine flu spread.

"Our hope is that employers will be generous in how they treat that employee," Biden said.

The school closures cap off several frenzied days of adjustments by federal and state governments to stem the spread of the virus.