Opinion: Biden urges Americans to stay off planes, subways during swine flu outbreak. Oops, White House correction follows

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Vice President Joe Biden, known for verbal excess, stepped on the Obama administration’s talking points this morning when he suggested that Americans should stay out of confined spaces with other people -- like trains, planes and subways -- until the swine flu epidemic passes.

On the ‘Today’ show, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked the vice president why the federal government has not closed the border with Mexico and what advice the vice president would give to members of his own family. Here’s what he said:


I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined spaces now.... When one person sneezes, it can go all the way through the airplane. I would not be at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.

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That guidance is at direct odds with administration policy, which is that Americans WHO ARE SICK should stay home and that institutions where folks gather -- from schools to sporting events -- should close IF THERE’S AN OUTBREAK of the H1N1 virus in their communities.

The last thing the White House wants is to inspire public panic that might not do anything to slow the epidemic but could also dampen prospects for economic recovery in key sectors like transportation and the hospitality business.

So within hours, the White House had put out a ‘clarification’ of Biden’s remarks, explaining that what the vice president meant to say was that only members of his family WHO ARE SICK should avoid confined spaces. As Biden press secretary Elizabeth Alexander put it:

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. As the president said just last night, every American should take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you’re sick; and keep your children home from school if they’re sick.

President Obama, who has worked valiantly to marshal federal resources without inspiring public panic, may have more to say about Biden’s remarks later in the day.

In the meantime, the administration quickly trotted out two of its most calming voices to correct the gaffe.

Asked about Biden’s remark, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called this ‘a teachable moment’ in which health professionals can inform the public -- including presumably the vice president -- on how to deal appropriately with the crisis without panic.

And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has been the administration’s face of the swine flu crisis, said she guesses if Biden had it to do over again he’d insert the words ‘if you are sick.’

Conceding for the first time that the federal government might close ports on U.S. borders if that is the advice of local health officials, Napolitano told MSNBC that Washington’s overall message is unchanged: Let’s not overreact. Let’s take common-sense approaches.

Biden said recently that Team Obama had encouraged him to ‘just be Joe.’ With 94 swine flu cases now confirmed in 11 states, and with the vice president stepping all over the president’s message in encouraging Americans to be prudent but not to panic, it may be time to rethink that strategy.

Ah, Joe, say it ain’t so.

-- Johanna Neuman

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