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At 1:30 p.m., a news conference was held at Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, where the governor, mayor and public health officials discussed what measures have been put in place to deal with the imminent pandemic.

Chicago and state join forces to combat spreading swine flu outbreak

by Michael Scott Leonard
April 29, 2009

Why swine?

As the outbreak of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus escalates, the pork industry is taking a hit from consumers who feel they could be infected by consuming pork. So how did the strain of the virus get its unusual name?

There are two strains of flu identified as H1N1, a human virus and a virus commonly passed among pigs. The symptoms of both are similar and include coughing, sneezing and chills. However, the human swine flu virus isn’t caused by pork products or pigs.

Officials believe the H1N1 virus has undergone a mutation which causes it to be contagious from humans to humans. By contrast, the avian flu, which struck Asia several years ago, never became highly transmissible between people despite the high number of birds affected and killed by the virus. People caught the virus mainly from infected birds.

— Sarah Norris

A 12-year-old girl was hospitalized Wednesday and eight others fell ill in the Chicago area’s first cases of swine flu.

Mayor Richard M. Daley and Gov. Patrick Quinn joined forces to urge calm and prevention with the number of cases expected to rise across the state.

Daley called the city “as prepared as it can be” to deal with the spreading virus that has killed up to 159 people in Mexico and one in the United States, where a confirmed 91 other people across at least six states have contracted the illness.

“I want to remind everyone in the city that this is a time to be alert, be aware and be prepared, but certainly not to panic,” Daley said at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, where Gov. Patrick Quinn and top public health officials gathered for a jam-packed press conference.

Also Wednesday, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level to Phase 5, indicating an “imminent pandemic.”

At the afternoon press conference, Quinn stressed interagency cooperation and he said he had signed an order Tuesday that will facilitate emergency-response measures such as the statewide disbursal of medical supplies and antiviral medication.

“We have a plan,” Quinn said. “We’ve always had a plan.”

He said the state is ready to spend “whatever’s necessary to protect the public health and safety.”

Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, asked Chicago residents to focus not on the numbers of swine flu cases but on the things they can do to lower their risk of contracting the virus.

“We expect these case numbers to rise in the next days, weeks, months ahead,” he said. “It’s time for all Chicagoans to think preparedness and think prevention.”

Mason emphasized commonsense hygienic measures such as frequent hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and not kissing people in greeting.

“And if you are sick, stay home and get better,” he said.

Dr. Damon Arnold, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the nine Chicago-area residents with the illness range in age from 6 to 57 years old. Five live in Chicago, two in Kane County, one in DuPage County and one in Lake County.

A probable case of swine flu is one that has been tested to about 99 percent certainty with equipment provided to the Illinois Department of Public Health by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Arnold. He said it takes about seven hours to establish 99 percent certainty and an additional 24-48 hours to be 100 percent sure through additional testing at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

Arnold said the state is distributing stockpiles of antiviral drugs and medical supplies to the local departments of public health.

“Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world,” WHO director Dr. Margaret Chan said through a statement. “The biggest question right now is: how severe will the pandemic be?”

The CDC Web site cautioned Wednesday that “most people will not have immunity to this new virus, and, as it continues to spread, more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths are expected in the coming days and weeks.”

Word of the city and state’s first probable swine flu case reached Chicago school officials around 9 p.m. Tuesday, according to Chicago Public Schools chief Ron Huberman. The Illinois Department of Public Health notified CPS of a probable infection of the 12-year-old girl, a student at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School on Chicago's North Side. Reports of that case began surfacing early Wednesday.

That information resulted in the decision to close the school Wednesday morning, he said.  He said the school will remain closed “at least today and tomorrow” and that other school closings will be decided “case-by-case.”

Huberman also said CPS had sent a letter Monday to all 400,000 of its students outlining both preventive steps and what could be anticipated if a case comes up. He said all 680 city principals had been notified “of protocols and policies associated with this particular virus.”

“We are currently in the process of reviewing all of the attendance for all of our schools for both Monday and for Tuesday,” Huberman said. He said officials will call the homes of all absent students at any school whose attendance rate deviates by more than 5 percent from the daily average, a precaution that began at 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, a 23-month-old Mexican toddler died in Texas, becoming the first swine flu fatality in the United States.

Arnold sought to put that death, and the Chicago area’s nine cases, in context by citing the 36,000 U.S. deaths caused annually by seasonal influenza. He also pointed to advances in medcines and treatment since the 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Arnold asked the public to remain calm in the face of widespread hype.

“The name of this game is take your own pulse,” Arnold said. “Really look at things and make sure we’re dealing with things rationally.”