The CDC opened its doors to give 60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley a look at the extraordinary federal response. It turns out, in many respects, that the 2009 H1N1 virus is no worse than the everyday flu.
Ninety-nine percent of the people who get it suffer just a few miserable days at home. But it is also true that for something less than one percent, H1N1 can be fatal. And many of them are the last people you'd expect to see rushing to an emergency room.
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On Oct. 7, 15-year-old Luke Duvall landed at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock. His life was slipping away. Luke was on a ventilator, not breathing on his own.
Dr. Michele Moss suspected H1N1. She had already lost one patient to the virus. "He's extremely fragile right now. His blood pressure is very tenuous and could go down at any second. So he's a very, very sick young man," she explained.
Luke had been perfectly healthy before. He had broken a state record in weightlifting. After a football game on Friday, Luke got sick.
His parents Belinda, a school teacher and Chad, a pastor, worried about H1N1 so they called their doctor.
"We were not able to get into the doctor until Monday, Monday afternoon about 2:30," Luke's father remembers.
Asked why, Chad Duvall told Pelley, "There's just so much of the flu around that by the time we were able to get a hold of the doctor Monday morning and get an appointment, it was that late in the day before they could actually even just get us in."
The family says the doctor sent Luke home to take medicine to control a fever of 103 and he started to improve.
His father remembers that they thought Luke was getting better. "And he actually said, 'I feel better. I think I'm going to get a shower now.' In the five minutes it took for him to go from the shower he came out and said, 'Something's wrong. I can't breathe.' His color had gone from normal pink to just grey in that five minutes, he was panting like a dog, just really fighting for his breath. At that point, it was no longer 'Do we go to the ER or wait 'til tomorrow?' Now it's 'We have to call 911 and get an ambulance to get him right now,'" Chad Duvall remembers.
At the local hospital, doctors decided Luke needed to fly to Arkansas Children's Hospital, with one of the nation's newest pediatric intensive care centers. Before the helicopter got there, Luke's football coach Charlie Sorrels rushed to see him.
"And he stuck his head in just before they put him to sleep and he said, 'Luke I just want to you know that I'm here for you and I'm gonna stay 'til your gone.' And he looked over and he said, 'Coach I can't play Friday night,'" Luke's father remembered. "And the coach said 'That's alright boy. I got you covered.' So that was the last words he said - it's Luke you know, 'Coach I can't play Friday night.' And so, you know, he's a fighter."
Luke was tested for H1N1. It would be hours before they would know.
But reports of his case and others like it were pouring into the emergency operations center of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat is the CDC's chief health officer in the war on H1N1. When 60 Minutes first met her two weeks ago, she showed us the virus was widespread in 27 states. When we saw her again last Thursday, things had changed.
"We think the virus is virtually everywhere in the country. Quite a lot of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths," she explained.
Asked what that tells her, Rear Adm. Schuchat told Pelley, "It's only October and we're seeing really uncharted territory. Typically, in the month of October, we would not have seen so much influenza. We would not see the whole country with widespread disease. That's something that we often will see in February."
The numbers are remarkable: last year, in the second week of October, there were seven cases reported. The same week this year there were nearly 5,000. By this time last year there were 7 deaths; today there are 885.
You can trace the jump to two things: because the virus is new, more people lack immunity and H1N1 never went away in the summer as flu usually does.
Asked who is most at risk, Schuchat told Pelley, "Children and young adults, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease and neurologic problems, immune-suppression."
One of the most unusual things is the higher number of kids who are ill: usually, an average of 66 children die in a flu season; this year, it is 86, so far, with seven months to go.