President Obama may be warning Americans not to panic over the flu outbreak that is spreading across the world, but Vice President Biden didn't tamp down the hyperbole Thursday, saying he would tell his family not to get on a plane right now or go in any confined space.
Speaking on NBC's "Today," Biden, a longtime Amtrak rider who has commuted for decades daily from Delaware to Washington, D.C., said he wouldn't advise family necessarily against going to Mexico, the source of the H1N1 outbreak, but he wouldn't tell them to get into any small area like a subway car, automobile, classroom or airplane.
"I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places right now," Biden said. "It's not that its going to Mexico, it's that you are in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes, it goes everywhere through the aircraft. That's me."
He added that his advice is offered as a means to slow down the spread of the flu, which has now resulted in infections in 11 states and 100 schools being shut down around the nation.
"I would not be at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway. From my perspective, it relates to is mitigation. If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft, a closed container, closed car, a closed classroom, it's a different thing," Biden said.
Biden's spokeswoman almost immediately afterward issued a statement saying that Biden is merely echoing administration policy.
"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," said Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander.
"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," she said.
The vice president's comments were dismissed as "fear-mongering" by one airline representative.
"To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad brush stroke bordering on fear mongering," American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said. "The facts of the situation at this stage anyway certainly don't support that."
Smith added: "American Airlines flies approximately 250,000 passengers a day and as of today, we have not had one ill passenger test positive for swine flu."
The Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines, also wrote Biden to tell him that airplanes are cleaner than most public buildings.
"Vice President Biden's comment that people should avoid air travel in response to the H1N1 flu outbreak was extremely disappointing," said ATA President and CEO James C. May. "The airlines have been working daily with government agencies, none of whom suggest people avoid air travel, unless they are not feeling well. The fact is that the air onboard a commercial aircraft is cleaner than that in most public buildings."
Asked about the comment, acting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Richard Besser called Biden's remarks "a teachable moment," saying that public health is based on evidence and the degree of risk
"I think flying is safe, going on the subway is safe. People should go out and live their lives. There are some people who may not be comfortable doing that but as a public health community we can put in context what the risk is so that people are doing the things that we know will reduce their risk... and if we look to each other to be responsible and not get on airplanes in places when we're sick, that makes everyone else safer," he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano she doesn't think healthy people should avoid public transit. She told MSNBC she thought if Biden could repeat the sentence, he would include the caveat -- if they were feeling sick -- they shouldn't use public transportation, which is the administration's position.
In another interview, the vice president echoed Obama, saying it would be too complicated to close the border with Mexico and could carry even greater consequences. The president said in his prime time press conference Wednesday night that closing the border would be like shutting the barn door after the horses have escaped.
Biden said he sympathizes with parents worried about the spread of the disease in this country, and repeated hygiene tips being offered by the administration. New York has the highest number of confirmed cases after several students from a Catholic school in Queens all returned home from Mexico and tested positive for the flu.
"A parent whose child's school is closed out of a precaution or because there's been a confirmed case of flu should not take child then to a day care center. They're going to have to take them home," he said.
"And the hope is that the employers will be generous in terms of how they treat that employee's necessary action of taking that child home and not being at work."