Yet after studying Frieden's muddled approach over the past two weeks to dealing with swine flu in New York I'm almost speechless about the level of incompetence. And he's supposed to be an infectious disease expert.
Margaret Chan, the present director-general of WHO, was almost run out of Hong Kong on a rail for the same muddled approach she took toward dealing with SARS.
The argument was that she wasn't really muddled; she was just being a good soldier for Beijing. I find that hard to believe given the extreme lethality of SARS. My guess is that she screwed up because SARS was imported to Hong Kong from the Mainland and so she accepted the same fallacy that's guided CDC actions in the face of the present swine flu epidemic.
I gave much discussion to the fallacy in my CDC's slow boat from China post. The fallacy translates into the silly idea that once a highly-infectious virus arrives in a country it's no use to deploy measures to prevent more infected people from entering the country. The same reasoning takes quarantine off the table.
It's looking as if Frieden accepted the same fallacy, unless you want to argue that he was under pressure from Mayor Bloomberg not to institute quarantines. If that's the case, all the more reason not to allow Frieden to run the CDC if he caves into pressure that easily.
By the way I don't want to hear about John Barry's thesis regarding quarantines in New York City in 1918. We desperately need a biomedical specialist who can think outside the 1918 box and who knows what century this is.
If we can't find that person, I fear America's response to a modern version of the lethal 1918 virus will parallel our lack of readiness to deal with the 9/11 attack, which was a brilliant application of asymmetrical warfare reflecting an understanding of the modern era in air travel. Oddly enough the swine flu virus has the same understanding, in a manner of speaking.
As to the situation in New York I won't even bother to direct my advice to Frieden. If there's someone who can chew and walk in New York City's health department: Can you find a quarantine operations manual? If so, OPEN THE MANUAL and FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.
If you can't find a manual, speed dial Hong Kong and ask them to email their copy. They have a manual, because they sure as hell learned their lesson after Margaret Chan.
And if I hear from New York City, 'Oh it's too late; that's shutting the barn door after the horse is out' -- the screaming and yelling reaching your ears will be coming all the way from Washington, DC.
Get it straight: a virus is not a horse.
As you can see I'm not quite speechless; I'll have a lot more to say about this matter later in the week. For now:
No Guidance on How to Rein in the Flu
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
The New York Times
May 18, 2009
As schools shut down because of the flu — with a dozen closed in New York and hundreds in Texas and Japan — health officials are asking a question for which there is little guidance, even in pandemic plans: what is the best way to stop an epidemic that spreads mostly in schools rather than in nursing homes?
Many school officials have shut the doors and had the custodians disinfect the empty buildings.
But that leaves parents confused and frustrated. Those whose schools remain open may fear that their children are in danger, and those with healthy children whose schools close may feel that officials have overreacted, burdening them with day-care costs and denying their young ones an education.
Even guidance from the top is ambivalent.
On May 4, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard E. Besser, said “closing schools is not effective” at halting the spread. Previously, the centers had advised schools to shut for up to two weeks if a confirmed case was found.
On Monday, New York City closed four more Queens schools after outbreaks of flu symptoms, bringing the total to 16 ordered shut since last week. In Texas, hundreds have been closed at various times.
“There’s no right answer,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference. “I’ve asked the question, ‘What would you do, Dr. Frieden, if you wanted to prevent the spread of flu around the entire student population?’ And the answer is, ‘Closing the schools for a month, prohibit all interaction among kids outside of school, and even then there’s no guarantee that you can do that.’ The bottom line is, case-by-case basis is probably the right thing.”
(Mr. Bloomberg was referring to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner, who has just been nominated to be chief of the C.D.C.)
Many parents and teachers have been calling local lawmakers wondering if their schools would be closed, said Eric Gioia, a City Council member from Queens who wants parents to be given the results of flu tests at their local schools and daily attendance figures.
“The lack of definitive information is causing great stress on families,” Mr. Gioia said. “If a school is safe, then the city needs to not only say it is but give parents all the information they need.”
Before closing one, Dr. Frieden said, officials look at documented fevers in students and how fast they are increasing. They also call families to see if children are really sick, not just staying home out of fear.
One thing is clear, infection control experts say: disinfecting closed schools is pointless. Flu viruses are believed to live on objects for perhaps two to eight hours, so a week’s closing will kill them. But when students return, if a few are sick, every cafeteria table, desk, lab beaker, doorknob, bathroom tap and basketball will soon be recontaminated.
Washing schools “is done for looks,” said Michael Olesen, a Minnesota infection control specialist. “It’s not a rational approach.”
The C.D.C.’s swine flu Web sitehas infection-control guidelines for many settings: hospitals, nursing homes, day-care centers and even dialysis clinics. But it has nothing specific to the core of this outbreak: schools full of teenagers.
Teenagers, experts say, are different from the victims of seasonal influenza. The bed-ridden, the very ill and infants can be forced to practice good hygiene, or isolated or sent home if they won’t.
But teenagers resist tedious advice to wash their hands for 20 seconds, cover every cough with a tissue or sleeve and stay away from other teenagers. If school is closed, they are likely to get together at the park or the mall.
Keeping sick students out of school is the most crucial step, said Dr. Yoko Furuya, an infection control specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital.
But that can be impractical. And students can shed virus for a day before they are sick.
“I’d lean toward getting surgical masks on them and trying to get to the end of the school year,” said Mr. Olesen, who is reluctant to see schools shut. “The masks capture all those droplets at the point of release.”
And how, he was asked, could students be made to do that?
“I don’t know how, but they make them do other things,” he said.
Amy D. Nichols, chief of infection control for the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, said she would like to see “schools just as awash in alcohol hand rubs as hospitals are, so it’s easy and quick to clean one’s hands.”
Ms. Nichols favors making students disinfect their hands before entering each class, the gym or the cafeteria.
“In junior high, you want to be like everyone else,” she said. “So schools should have wall-mounted push dispensers. That way it becomes part of the culture of the schools. The more people push the handle, the more everybody else does.”
She also favors cleaning surfaces as often as is practical, because other risks like antibiotic-resistant bacteria persist longer than flu.
What to do with sick students whose working parents cannot afford babysitters is another problem.
Asked if schools could set up cots in a gym for ill students, Mr. Olesen demurred.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Cots for kids in puberty with their hormones raging? That’s a whole other public health problem.”
Even if schools make it to summer break, hot weather may slow, but not solve the problem, the C.D.C. said Monday.
“We’d love to see a decrease in cases, but in the past there have been outbreaks of seasonal influenza even in summer camps,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the agency’s interim deputy director for public health.
Confirming anecdotal observations that this flu concentrates in young people, Dr. Schuchat said preliminary studies of family transmission showed that when one member gets infected, the most likely to follow are those under 18, not parents or grandparents.