Swine Flu Has D.C. Pointing Fingers

Reports of swine flu outbreaks have come in from five different states so far, but all Washington has caught is a contagious case of finger-pointing.

As the cable networks went 24/7 with influenza coverage Monday, liberal bloggers went after Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Arlen Specter for working to slice $780 million in pandemic planning funds from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.

A spokesman for Collins seemed to shift some of the blame to the Obama administration, noting the unfilled seats at the Department of Health and Human Services. The Service Employees International Union, in turn, blamed Senate Republicans for a delay in confirming HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius.

This kind of partisan sniping, of course, is the congressional equivalent of elevator music. But what about an event that would really capture lawmakers’ attention — an appearance of the dreaded virus on Capitol Hill?

Congress’ attending physician and the House sergeant at arms are working on a plan in case a flu pandemic hits Capitol Hill. A “Dear Colleague” letter sent out Monday by the Office of the Attending Physician stressed hand washing and encouraged members to leave work if they fall ill.

“It is unknown if the current swine influenza strain could trigger a pandemic,” wrote physician Brian Monahan. “However, the potential exists, and so it is advisable that individuals, offices and other groups take the time to review their plans for public health emergencies and keep abreast of any new developments in regarding the current situation.”

But health experts say that, by the time Capitol officials realize they’ve got a swine flu problem on their hands, it may be too late to do much about it: The virus would already be bouncing from lawmaker to lawmaker, staffer to staffer, transmitted by coughs and sneezes.

If you’re already feeling queasy, stop reading.

Germs could be smeared on chairs on the House and Senate floor, on elevator buttons in the House and Senate office buildings and even on the microphones in the hearing rooms.

According to the research of epidemiologist Donald Henderson, who directed the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness after Sept. 11, as much as 25 percent of Congress could eventually become infected.

But Henderson says it is unlikely that the Capitol building would be completely shut down or that Congress would be dismissed.

“I would not anticipate any real interruption,” Henderson said. Why?

Based on his research, Henderson said it’s likely that — even assuming one-quarter of the members of Congress caught swine flu — only 10 percent would be experiencing full symptoms at any time. That means at the most, something like 54 House and Senate members would likely be absent on a given day, a number unlikely to bring Capitol Hill’s gears to a halt.

“The evidence we have so far is that people who have the disease in the U.S. have an illness that is no more severe than normal influenza,” Henderson said. “There’s not going to be that many people out with the flu at any given time.”

The attending physician’s office would be responsible for spearheading any health movement, including warning lawmakers to stay home and potentially dispensing medication like TamiFlu if needed.

Images from an infected New York school this week showed cleaning crews wiping down classroom desks and chairs, but Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a physician, said it would be too hard to disinfect the thousands of desks and chairs in the Senate and House chambers, hearing rooms and offices.

A more likely scenario: Hearings and votes could be canceled.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to wipe down the entirety of any building in the U.S. government,” he said. “The CDC recommendsthat infected schools cancel school, and it would probably be the same for Congress.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Congress considered the idea.

According to the Senate Historian’s office, Congress debated going out of session in 1918 when a flu epidemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide.

Congress fled from Philadelphia in 1793 when a yellow fever outbreak killed thousands, including several lawmakers.

Members of Congress — with heavy travel schedules and constant contact with a lot of people — may be uniquely susceptible to communicable diseases. But there are some aspects of the Capitol Hill lifestyle that could make lawmakers less susceptible to catching swine flu.

Health experts say federal buildings are well-ventilated. So, too, are most of the planes that members of Congress take back and forth from their districts. “Every passenger plane has air filters that filter out viruses,” said Henderson. “When you deal with flu on a plane, your risk of getting infected is probably less than sitting in a hearing room.”

Lawmakers might be encouraged to wear face masks, but Henderson says it’s unlikely that Congress would turn into a sea of surgical masks. They’re uncomfortable, they become ineffective when moisture clogs the mask pores, and they look lousy on camera — an opposition TV ad waiting to be made. Said Henderson: “The only thing it might do is inhibit members’ debate.”
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