By Steven Reinberg
SUNDAY, April 26 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials declared a public health emergency Sunday in response to the swine flu outbreak, as the number of confirmed cases nationwide rose to 20.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the declaration was a precautionary measure, and did not mean that the threat posed by the outbreak was worsening. But, the move allows federal and state governments easier access to flu tests and medications, she said.
"That [a public health emergency] sounds more severe than it really is. This is standard operating procedure, and allows us to free up federal, state and local agencies and their resources for prevention and mitigation. It allows us to use medication and diagnostic tests that we might not otherwise be able to use, and it releases funds for the acquisition of additional antivirals," Napolitano said during a press conference at the White House.
Napolitano said the federal government had 50 million doses of the antiviral flu medication Tamiflu, and a quarter of those doses were being released to states, if needed, "particularly prioritizing the states where we already have confirmed incidence of the flu."
All 20 U.S. patients -- eight in New York, seven in California, two in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio -- have recovered, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the news conference.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, believed to be the source of the outbreak, authorities continued to take dramatic steps over the weekend -- including suspending public gatherings -- to try to contain the swine flu outbreak that officials say has killed as many as 86 people, and sickened more than 1,400 others in that country.
In the United States, eight more cases of swine flu, all involving school students, were confirmed Sunday by New York City health officials, bringing the national total to 20. Some students at St. Francis Preparatory School recently had been to Mexico, The New York Times reported.
Two new U.S. cases were reported Saturday by health officials in Kansas, as well as a new case in California, according to the Associated Press. All U.S. cases have so far been mild.
And Canadian officials on Sunday reported four "very mild" cases of swine flu at a school in Nova Scotia. All four students were recovering, the AP reported.
Besser said that, as the number of cases of swine flu continues to grow in Mexico, the CDC expects to see more cases in the United States. "As we look for cases of swine flu, we are seeing more cases of swine flu, and we would expect to see more cases of swine flu," he said.
"We have ramped up our surveillance around the country to try and understand better what is the scope, what is the magnitude of this outbreak," Besser said.
Although all the reported cases in the United States have so far been mild, there are bound to be more severe cases, Besser said. "Given the reports out of Mexico, I would expect that over time we are going to see more severe disease in this country," he said.
Napolitano said the Department of Homeland Security has started "passive surveillance protocols to screen people coming into the country."
"All persons entering the United States from a location of human infection of swine flu will be processed by appropriate CDC protocols," she said. "Right now these are passive. They are looking for people and asking about: 'Are you sick? Have you been sick?' and the like. And if so, they can be referred over for further examination. Travelers who do present with symptoms will be isolated."
Despite the outbreak the U.S. government has not told people not to travel to Mexico or other counties where flu has been found. "To date the State Department had not issued official travel advisories, for particularly Mexico, but these situations are very fluid," Napolitano said.
There are steps people can take to help prevent catching and spreading the flu, including frequent hand-washing, Besser said. "If you are sick it is very important that people stay at home. If your children are sick, have a fever and flu-like illness, they shouldn't go to school. And if you are ill you shouldn't get on an airplane or another public transport. Those things are part of personal responsibility in trying to reduce the impact," he said.