What If Swine Flu Strikes Congress (Again)?

The fall season marks both the start of Congress and the beginning of flu season.ABC News Photo Illustration
The fall season marks both the start of Congress and the beginning of flu season.

Fall marks both the start of Congress and the beginning of flu season. With Congress set to work on health care reform, the potential health crisis of the H1N1 swine flu also looms.

But with health care and swine flu as the leading health stories of the day, Congress has made some preparations for the possibility that one might impact the other, establishing policy for if and when members fall ill.

VIDEO: A nurse uses a mask during the 1918 flu epidemic.Play

"A member who contracts H1N1 should stay home and practice the same social distancing as anyone else," according to Jim Manley, the senior communications adviser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Offices are being given the same information as members of the public."

The guidelines hold even in the face of an important vote. Should a congressman be ill on the day of a crucial vote, "They miss the vote," said Manley.

Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt, said those guidelines are the sensible ones.

"If you're out and about among people, even if you have a mask on, you place others at risk," he said.

An outbreak of swine flu, unless it proves to be a particularly partisan strain, is unlikely to sink health care reform, given the Democratic majorities in both Houses.

But while senators and representatives may receive the best health care, that hasn't kept its members -- or their families -- safe from past epidemics.

The Senate Historical Office recently prepared a document on how past epidemics of influenza have affected lawmakers. Overall, the epidemics have not had a great impact on Congress, "Other than in the early days appropriating funds to help with the flight against the flu," said Betty K. Koed, associate historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

"Congress has never adjourned early or something like that," she said. "In other cases, the epidemic reached its peak when Congress was out of session, so it was a moot point."

Public Servants and Public Health

But influenza epidemics have impacted individual lawmakers.

During the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19, the flu struck candidates, family members and representatives. In September 1918, it struck Speaker James Beauchamp Clark and Representative Claude Kitchin.

In September 1918, the House and Senate voted to deploy a new pneumonia vaccine developed by the military to contain the epidemic. There were no dissenting votes in either House of Congress, according to the New York Times.

Later that month, the flu claimed the life of Edward J. Cummings, a Democratic candidate from New Hampshire. And, in January 1919, Congressman Edward Robbins, a Republican from Pennsylvania, also died of influenza.

During the winter, at least two other congressmen lost family members to influenza.

While it was the most deadly, Spanish influenza was not the only major epidemic flu to strike the United States.

In 1957 and 1958, the world witnessed an outbreak of so-called Asian or Oriental flu, and it actually may have reached higher up in government.

In March 1957, when he was the ranking official in Washington while President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in Bermuda, Vice President Richard M. Nixon contracted influenza and was treated for it at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, according to an article from that time in the Washington Post and Times Herald. Nixon became ill just after returning from Africa.

An editorial from the Post and Times Herald in August 1957, "Plague Upon Our House," urged steps to combat the flu, noting that while doctors said it had been mild in the previous summer, a worse epidemic could come.

"Thus, the reports of doctors who have had opportunity to study the progress of the new epidemic in Asia and Europe that its effects are seldom fatal are only partly reassuring, since it is remembered that the first wave of the influenza in 1917 was likewise relatively mild and the disease did not work its wholesale mortalities until the following winter," the editorial read.

The expected deployment of the vaccine appears similar to the current situation as well.

"It is upon the newly developed vaccine for the Asian Influenza that American epidemiologists are counting to keep the disease within control next winter. The main trouble seems to be that by the time the epidemic is expected to strike with great force -- that is, early in the autumn -- there will not be enough of the vaccine available," the authors of the editorial wrote.

While the 1968-69 epidemic, known as the Hong Kong flu, also caused a significant number of deaths, none of them appear to be among those in the highest level of government.

Swine Flu In High Places

With flu season fast approaching, no one knows yet how deadly this virus will be. While it has yet to affect U.S. leadership, it was announced last week that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had contracted H1N1.

As for the U.S., Schaffner noted that as health care reform was debated, he hoped that one piece of legislation he would like to see would help in the event of future epidemics.

"I hope the health care reform package includes all recommended vaccines from birth through senior citizenship. We need that badly," he said.

And Schaffner hopes members of Congress take advantage of health care options they already have.

"The first thing I would hope is that they all get vaccinated against seasonal influenza, because that vaccine is currently available," he said. "Many, possibly members of Congress themselves, are overlooking regular seasonal vaccine. We very well could have a double-barreled influenza outbreak this season."

He noted that their families should follow that advice as well.

"All the advice we're giving to the general population would apply to members of Congress, of course, and while they're at it, they should get their families vaccinated."