Combating Swine Flu: Should We Seal the Border?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," April 28, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: It's here. And worse, it's spreading -- the swine flu. At this hour, 68 cases confirmed in the United States, but that number is growing, today Indiana becoming the sixth state with a confirmed victim to the flu, a Notre Dame student. The student is reportedly recovering well. But here's the hitch. The student had not recently traveled to Mexico.

And there's more. In New York, health officials warn that hundreds of students have possibly been infected with swine flu. At this hour New York confirms 45 infected. And just coming in to FOX, two more state with probably but unconfirmed cases of swine flu. Two people in Connecticut and two people in South Carolina are believed to be infected with the illness.

And there is more. The outbreak has gone global, swine flu cases confirmed in Canada, Britain, Spain, Israel, New Zealand's, and, of course Mexico, where it is believed this dangerous outbreak began.

And already in Mexico, an estimated 159 dead from the swine flu.

The State Department is telling United States citizens do not go to Mexico. All non-essential travel should be avoided.

The deadly impact of the flu south of the border raises an important question. Should the U.S. government seal our border with Mexico to attempt to contain this outbreak before it becomes a pandemic?

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff joins us live. Nice to see you, Mr. Secretary.


VAN SUSTEREN: Is it possible to seal the border in an attempt to contain this, and do you think it is a good idea?

CHERTOFF: It really is not possible at this point, because it is beyond containment. At the very, very beginning of the outbreak in Mexico, if it had been possible for the Mexican authorities to put a circle around the epidemic, or the outbreak, that would have essentially squashed it.

At this point, we have so many cases all over the country and around the world that the possibility of sealing off Mexico and it having any impact really doesn't make any sense.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you talk about sealing a border, do you have to take into consideration such issues, I hate to be so bold, but like trade? We have got health. We have got trade. There is so much that goes on across the border.

CHERTOFF: You have to look at a number of things. First, is it even possible to seal the border? That means you would have to stop all the traffic not only through the ports of entry, but over the areas of the border which are between the ports of entry.

And while we have made a lot of progress with fend and border patrol, we have not sealed the border.

In addition, you have to worry about people who leave Mexico and go to another country after then come into the U.S.

So, we looked into this several years ago when we put together the pandemic flu plan, and we concluded that actually sealing the border is virtually impossible. And, as you pointed out, the cost in terms of the economy would be almost astronomical.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have an assessment of how the Secretary of Homeland Security is doing the job now, Janet Napolitano?

CHERTOFF: I think Secretary Napolitano is doing what she should be doing. We worked on a plan over the last three years designed specifically to deal with the possibility of a pandemic flu. And what you're seeing now is she is using that plant in order to make sure that we have coordinated across the government to make sure that we are at least checking people at the border, to make sure that the antiviral medication has been released.

It is also important, though, for the private sector to take the necessary preparations so that they are in a position to deal with this outbreak if it becomes a pandemic.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why is this Homeland Security, or is it? You'd think, in some ways, it would be HHS. Tonight, actually, we have a new secretary tonight, but why is it Homeland Security?

CHERTOFF: Greta, you have to realize that when we deal with a medical problem like this, it's not just a health problem.

Obviously, the health piece is front and center. But you also have to think about thinks like how to deal with the border, how do we deal air travel, what do we do if people get sick, and the critical infrastructure in the county can't be run?

And because these issues embrace more than health issues, and they cover multiple departments, you need to have one official who is basically the manager or the coordinator, and that is the Secretary of Homeland Security under a presidential directive signed by President Bush several years ago.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are you jealous that she has the job tonight dealing with the swine flu, or are you thinking to yourself, "I am glad it's not my problem"?

CHERTOFF: I had my share of big crises, and I am perfectly happy to have Janet Napolitano do a good job as she seems to be doing handling this one.

VAN SUSTEREN: Probably, of all the jobs of the government, I think yours is probably the one where I would sleep the least. I mean, you have so many incomings, so to speak. You have the possibility of terrorism, you've got ports, you've got trains, and now you've got viruses.

CHERTOFF: Well, basically, it's the job where the person who is responsible for dealing with any crisis or problem that affects the nation.

And you're right. It can be terrorism one day, it can be immigration problems the next. It can be a hurricane or a tornado. And it can be a medical outbreak.

And the thing we had to do over the last four years was to really build a set of plans that could be used in precisely the kind of case we have now where an emergency arises, you have to move quickly, people have to be prepared, you have to have the tools.

And what you're seeing now is the fruit of several years of hard work.

VAN SUSTEREN: So when Secretary Napolitano stepped into it, at least she had some sort of framework at least to begin work. I mean, obviously, each situation is different, but at least there was something set in motion.

CHERTOFF: That's right. Every situation evolves, and you have to adjust the plan. But if you start out with a good plan, then at least you begin with a running start.

And we spent a good deal of time over the last three years addressing this. How do you build those plans? How do you make sure we have the stockpile? How do you make sure people know how to get that distributed if the time comes you have to distribute it?

And so one of the important legacies I think we wanted to leave the next administration was a good set of procedures and protocols that they could turn to in exactly this kind of situation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Secretary, we all appreciate it, and we appreciate it every time we are kept safe by our government. Thank you, sir.

CHERTOFF: Thanks, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now for your live vote. Go to and answer this poll question, do you want the U.S. to try to seal the border with Mexico, yes or no?

You don't have much time, so hurry to and vote. We will read your results at the end of the hour.

And 45 swine flu cases are confirmed in New York. People in New York City are understandably worried. Health officials say hundreds in New York City are sick and might be infected.

WNYW reporter Andrea Day joins us. Andrea, what is the latest in New York?

ANDREA DAY, REPORTER, WNYW: Well, Greta, as you said, there are 45 confirmed cases of swine flu here at the school of St. Francis.

Now, the school is closed. In fact, no one is allowed to even go through the doors.

And big out of Nassau County tonight with its first confirmed case swine flu. Actually, the confirmed case is a student here.

And the other big news is just around the block from this school, another school, PS-177, a special needs school, where at least 80 kids called out sick today. That's a lot of kids.

Now, none of those are confirmed cases of swine flu, but it has lots of parents, as you might expect, very concerned, and health officials very concerned about how big can this thing get?

VAN SUSTEREN: I was just talking to the secretary about the idea of whether it is even possible to seal a border like between United States and Mexico, and what an extraordinary task.

But these kids who are infected with the swine flu, have they been to Mexico?

DAY: Well, that's interesting, because many of them haven't.

There is a link. The link that connects all of these things, all of these cases, is Mexico and this school, St. Francis. So there is no word right now on who has been to Mexico or not, but they all are connected with that link.

In fact, even at that other school I was talking about, PS-177, that special needs school around the corner, two of the students there have a sibling that goes to this school.

So it is all kind of a big circle, and this school is the epicenter.

VAN SUSTEREN: Andrea, thank you.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden joins us. Dr. Baden, we know swine fly is all over the news tonight, so there is a tendency for people to be panic and be scared, and they should be, because we read about people being killed.

But how does this different from any flu? People have the flu often. Is there something particularly dangerous about this one?

DR. MICHAEL BADEN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: It seems to be thus far less dangerous, because, remember, 36,000 people a year die in the United States from normal, annual flu, the normal flu. That's 100 a day on average.

We haven't had any deaths yet from this strain, and maybe for a few reasons. It is a weaker strain, or prior immunizations, the shots we got last year or the year before, gave partial immunity since the virus itself is partially made up of prior DNA's in other prior viruses in the past five years.

VAN SUSTEREN: We are sort of in an awkward position in the media. On the one hand, we don't want to scare everybody, and we don't want to overplay a story.

On the other hand, we don't want to underestimate it and tell people don't wash hands, feel confident, everything's fine. Even though the State Department says don't go to Mexico, just go to Mexico.

We do not know how to accurately report this, or fairly.

BADEN: Right. And I think the CBC that is doing a lot of work in this area, they are also concerned, but they are not alarmed yet.

So far, it is not a bad flu. It is spreading. There will be some deaths. But remember, we get 100 deaths a day normally, and we don't get very excited about it. I as a medical student --

VAN SUSTEREN: Frankly, I don't want to go to Mexico. I'll admit it. I guess I am susceptible to the news report. I do not feel like going there.

BADEN: I agree with you. I think it's a risk. It is a small risk, but I would not go to Mexico at this time if that trip could be postponed.

In about one week or two, we'll have a lot more information from the work that is being done.

And they way this harms, incidentally, Greta -- I have done autopsies in the last two pandemics. The viruses get into the lungs, get into the air passages, cause a bronchitis and difficulty breathing, high fever. They go to the hospital, and sometimes a pneumonia will develop, and that can cause death.

So far, that hasn't happened here. So, hopefully, even if it spreads widely, as long as it doesn't do much harm, for whatever the reason, then it's not such a bad infection.

VAN SUSTEREN: And, of course, there is probably a run on emergency rooms, because people are also panicked, because the minute you have any of the symptoms, or even image them, there is a run on the hospitals.

BADEN: The main this is not to be panicked about this, because, like in 1976.

VAN SUSTEREN: But also not to be stupid.

BADEN: Well, you have to be cautious.

VAN SUSTEREN: You also have to be vigilant.

BADEN: Yes, but in 1976 we overreacted, and we hurt a lot of people with the vaccine that would not have been hurt otherwise.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's a tough call on so many fronts. The bottom line is -

BADEN: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: -- wash your hands, get rest, sleep, and the whole works. Anyway, Dr. Baden, thank you, sir.

BADEN: And stay away from Mexico.

VAN SUSTEREN: Yes, and stay away from Mexico. Now Mexico is going to hate us.

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