April 30, 2009— -- Democrats hustled to temper Vice President Joe Biden's comments today that he would advise his family to avoid flying or being in confined spaces because of concerns about swine flu, a comment that drew criticism from the travel industry.
At a news conference Wednesday evening, President Obama said Americans who may be sick should avoid airplanes and "any system of public transportation where you're confined," but the vice president today took it one step further.
"I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico in a confined aircraft where one person sneezes, that goes all the way through the aircraft," Biden said on NBC's "Today" show.
"That's me," he said.
"I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway," he said. "From my perspective, this relates to mitigation. If you're out in the middle of the field and someone sneezes, that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft, a closed container, a closed car, a closed classroom, that's another thing."
Biden's comments came just hours before the White House announced that a Department of Energy official who had traveled to Mexico City with Secretary Energy Chu exhibited flu-like symptoms upon his return, but tested negative for the swine flu. However, his wife, son and nephew tested positive for the virus, and have now recovered.
The White House shot down concerns that the president or any other immediate members of his staff may be impacted. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the individual did not come within six feet of Obama but was present at a dinner with him and did come into contact with Chu.
Gibbs added that about 10 staffers who were on the Mexico City trip with Obama consulted doctors for flu-like symptoms, but none of them tested positive for the swine flu.
Biden's remarks drew the ire of the travel industry. The U.S. Travel Association immediately released a statement countering Biden's remarks, and advised people to listen to medical experts.
"Americans should heed the advice of medical experts when determining how best to manage health concerns during the ongoing swine flu outbreak. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and countless other experts, swine flu should not discourage people from traveling to or within the United States," Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the association, said in the statement.
"Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity," he said.
American Airlines issued an even stronger statement.
"To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad brush stroke bordering on fear-mongering," American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith told The Associated Press. "The facts of the situation, at this stage anyway, certainly don't support that."
When asked by ABC News' Jake Tapper whether the White House had a response to Biden's comments, Gibbs replied: "I think ... what the vice president meant to say was the same thing that again, many members have said in the last few days, that is, if you feel sick, if you are exhibiting flulike symptoms -- coughing, sneezing, runny nose -- that you should take precautions, that you should limit your travel."
Gibbs apologized if anyone was "unduly" alarmed but did not elaborate.
"Jake, I'm telling you what he meant to say," he said to laughter.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier today also tried to temper the vice president's remarks.
"I think the vice president, if he had, if he could say that over again he would say if they're feeling sick they should stay off public transit or confined spaces because that is indeed the advice that we're giving," Napolitano said on MSNBC.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who said Biden's comments were unfortunate, was visibly frustrated by what he called misinformation.
"I wish the vice president had checked with the Centers for Disease Control ... before he made that statement. ... As far as not riding on subways or planes, we're not going to shut down our system and that doesn't get to the nub of the problem, anyway," he said on Radio Iowa. "So I think that's very unfortunate that this kind of misinformation got out."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also had a different message. She said she would not tell her family to stay off planes and public transportation, but would recommend to them the "common-sense" approach, washing hands and covering sneezes or coughs.
"They are living their lives and, again, practicing common sense, good practices. And so it's not a question of not encouraging, not to travel. It's also a question of encouraging them not to leave home ... just because their states ... are the most, shall we say, suspicious in this case," Pelosi told reporters.
Biden's spokeswoman, Elizabeth Alexander, released a statement shortly after the vice president's remarks, saying, "The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week."
To Travel or Not to Travel
The CDC has confirmed 131 cases of swine flu in 18 states. The World Health Organization has tallied 236 cases globally, most of them in Mexico.
The CDC recommends against any non-essential travel to Mexico, but it has not said to avoid travel altogether because of flu concerns. The U.S.-Mexico border remains open, and airlines have not canceled flights.
At a news conference on the 100-day anniversary of his administration, President Obama reiterated the need for individual responsibility in staying safe from the flu but advised against panic.
"This is a cause for deep concern but not panic," he said. " If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, keep them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don't get on an airplane. Don't get on any system of public transportation where you're confined and you could potentially spread the virus."
He said his advisers did not believe the U.S.-Mexico border should be closed. "From their perspective, it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States," he said.
Biden also said this morning that doing so would be a "massive undertaking" and that no benefit would come from it.
The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee convened today the fourth congressional hearing this week on swine flu with CDC and Health and Human Services officials. Napolitano will hold a briefing Thursday afternoon.
ABC News' Jake Tapper, Dean Norland, Karen Travers and David Chalian contributed to this report.