In the mainstream media, it’s said, if it bleeds, it leads.
But if it’s feverish, phlegmy, nauseated and has the potential to create massive global casualties, then it doesn’t just lead, it dominates. This spring, the New Mexico media wasn’t immune from H1N1/swine flu obsession—from reporting every suspected case to hosting online polls over the best swine flu pun (Aporkalypse beat Snoutbreak more than 2-to-1, according to New Mexico Independent reporter and former SFR Total Pig columnist, Gwyneth Doland).
“Every five years there’s always one—bird flu, mad cow disease, swine flu—and you’ll see the same reaction and coverage to create a sense of excitement,” Albuquerque-based freelance writer Christopher Ortiz, whose blog, stuffjournalistslike.com, named “Pandemics” No. 25 on its list, tells SFR. “I think the public reacts to the coverage, not vice versa.”
As of June 5, New Mexico had 156 total confirmed cases of swine flu, with no deaths, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates 19,000 cases in 64 countries and 117 deaths. WHO may soon declare H1N1 a “phase six” full pandemic, the highest rating on its alert system.
Yet, it seems the media has all but forgotten about the pandemic.
“You can only talk about it like it’s the Second Coming for so long,” Ortiz says. “Much like how everyone gets all excited over a newborn baby but, after a few weeks, the baby is old news, but it’s not like the baby doesn’t exist or is any less exciting. In fact, it’s probably more so.”
Santa Fe County Office of Emergency Management Director Martin Vigil cautions the pandemic is far from over and may come back with a vengeance in the fall.
SFR took advantage of the temporary calm to investigate what swine flu taught New Mexico and what’s in store for the next flu season.
Swine Flu Sucks
When news of the swine flu-related deaths in Mexico City broke, Americans braced for the plague. But, as the weeks passed and it became clear swine flu wasn’t anymore deadly than regular flu (0.2 percent mortality rate for H1N1 compared to 0.1 for seasonal influenza), the public began to shrug it off.
While University of New Mexico student and swine flu survivor Kara Griego agrees the initial coverage was overblown, she says the illness is far from mild.
“Seriously, it just felt like a train hit me,” Griego, 21, tells SFR. “I started hallucinating because the fever was so high, and I was just sweating profusely and wasn’t able to breath. It was horrible.”
Griego took a week off from work to stay with her parents and, even though she’s recovered, she says she’s still suffering from a suppressed immune system and catches every bug.
According to Dr. Mack Sewell, the state epidemiologist in the New Mexico Department of Health, the number of youth affected by swine flu came as a surprise. He cites US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that shows 71 percent of those affected were under 25.
“This virus has a huge predilection for younger people,” Sewell says. “Older people probably have been exposed to something similar in the past and have some degree of protection.”
Swine Flu Is Still Unpredictable
New Mexico is home to several top epidemiological experts, due to the pandemic research conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory, particularly in computer modeling. However, these experts were somewhat at a loss to predict how the virus would spread because its properties were still largely unknown.
Dr. Tim Germann, the LANL scientist responsible for the EpiCast pandemic mapping system, tells SFR that predictions were made too early to be reliable and only now is data emerging that will help researchers adapt their computer models to H1N1.
“The big uncertainty is how many people have been exposed without becoming sick,” Germann says. “It may be that there are a lot more people who have been exposed and developed resistance that we don’t know about.”
Researchers in Australia have adapted the EpiCast software in order to map out potential scenarios as the southern hemisphere enters the winter flu season. In the meantime, Germann predicts the northern hemisphere’s warm summer weather, along with schools’ summer breaks, will result in a drop in New Mexico cases, which will return in the fall.
In the meantime, LANL is working with University of California, Los Angeles to develop inexpensive, rapid testing kits in order to get quicker, more accurate data. That would have been helpful for Griego: H1N1 wasn’t confirmed in her case until after she recovered.
Swine Flu Is Viral
H1N1 has found a second infectious life through Twitter. Comic Baratunde Thurston confessed at an event in New York City last week that he was responsible for the swine flu’s satirical Twitter account, which collected more than 1,500 followers in a few weeks.
When the swine flu news began to grip the public’s imagination, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office launched its new multimedia alert system several weeks early. The service is called Nixle and allows the public to sign up for email or text message alerts for everything from arrest reports to infectious disease outbreaks.
Currently, more than 350 people have subscribed to the service. Yet, the alert system’s Twitter feed is where Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano says he’s noticed an uptick in attention.
“Just every day, I’m getting sign-ups after sign-ups,” he says of the page, which has accumulated 100 “followers” since late April. “It’s kind of a pyramid growth that’s happening through Twitter.”
Swine Flu Sneaks Up
Having survived the first wave of the pandemic, New Mexico government agencies have only months to prepare for what may be a harsher flu season in the winter.
According to Vigil, Santa Fe County has been preparing for a flu pandemic since 2005 and coordinated the first hospital drill in the state. Within days of the Mexico City outbreak, Vigil had met with the Santa Fe Fire Department to assess the mask and glove supply, and began discussing continuity of operations for county government.
What took the county officials by surprise was that the New Mexico Department of Health didn’t keep them in the loop.
“We were literally getting our intelligence off the national and local news media before we ever had information coming out of the Department of Health,” Vigil says, echoing sentiments also expressed by Solano. “As we addressed that to the Health Department, it never seemed to improve that much.”
Vigil also says the county was told far too late that the DOH would not assist them in providing personal protection equipment, such as masks and gloves, to crucial county employees.
“We’ve received no direct funding to develop those capabilities,” Vigil says. “The funding went all to the state, so that was a huge reality check on our part, that we were on our own.”
To prepare for the next cycle, Vigil says the county is working under the assumption that between 30 and 40 percent of staff may be incapacitated by swine flu and is preparing strategies for emergency staffing.
The big hurdle, he says, will be with the public.
“Even with all the public information, it will be a huge challenge to get human behavior to align itself with [influenza precautions],” he says. “For example, I saw very little environmental surface cleaning as I traveled through the community in Santa Fe.”
For SFR’s special swine flu correspondent Doug Robert’s intelligence brief, visit SFReeper.com.