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As First American Dies From Flu, Mexico’s Economy Reels

May 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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As word emerged Tuesday that the first American has died of the H1N1 flu, the virus appeared to be waning in Mexico. After the latest U.S. news, Ray Suarez reports from Mexico City.
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GWEN IFILL: Our lead story: Texas reported the first death of a U.S. resident from the flu outbreak. The victim was a woman in her 30s living near McAllen, Texas, along the border with Mexico. Officials said she’d had chronic health problems.

Last week, a Mexican boy died of the flu at a hospital in Houston.

Still, earlier today, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, said the virus has been milder than initially feared. She announced new guidelines for the nation’s schools.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, Health and Human Services secretary: There’s new guidance being put out as we speak that will recommend that schools cease closing the school itself with affected cases. Having said that, we know that it makes it even more important that parents and teachers and others pay attention to sickness as it breaks out.

GWEN IFILL: The total number of flu cases in the U.S. is now over 400 in 38 states. Health officials said that figure is likely to continue rising.

And for more on the latest developments in the U.S., we turn to Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post. She’s covering the story and has been at the Centers for Disease Control today. She joins us from Atlanta.

Welcome, Ceci.

CECI CONNOLLY, Washington Post: Hello, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: What can you tell us that we don’t already know — and that’s not much — about this latest reported flu death?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, the information is just mainly coming out of Texas as we speak. As you mentioned, it’s a woman in her 30s, not apparently been to Mexico recently, but living so close to the border there — and I know, having spent a good bit of time along the border, most folks there are crossing back and forth very routinely. They don’t think of it as a dividing line. So that doesn’t really surprise me.

We know that she had those underlying health problems, as you mentioned. And that’s interesting.

And I kind of see a little bit of a theme today, Gwen, when you think about the death of this woman and you think about the change in recommendations with respect to closing of schools, what the CDC experts now seem to be saying in Atlanta here is that this is starting to look more like our annual seasonal flu.

Well, what does that mean? That maybe it’s not going to be quite as severe as first was thought. It also means, though, that people who have weakened immune systems, underlying chronic health problems, they may be more at risk than the rest of us.

Theme emerging of seasonal flu

Ceci Connolly
The Washington Post
[T]hey are completely ramped up, 24/7 emergency operations center, 'round the clock, but I think there is something to this theme of it's starting to look more like the seasonal flu.

GWEN IFILL: Except that today's actions and announcements just seem -- for people following this casually, seem a little bit in contradiction with one another. On one hand, go to school, only keep your children home if they're sick. And on the other hand, oh, by the way, we had another flu death in this country. What are people to believe?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, it does. The one thing I have to point out is that the experts at CDC have been saying each and every day that, number one, it's a dynamic situation and, number two, they fully expected to see many more cases in the United States and even, unfortunately, deaths, so this should not come as a great surprise.

It's a very sad development, no doubt. But it's not a big shocker to the scientists. We knew that this flu was killing people in Mexico and in all likelihood it will continue to have some victims here in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you spent a great deal of time at the CDC talking to the scientists who are kind of at ground zero in this. Do they seem to be exhibiting at this stage more worry or more relief?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, the great thing about all of these disease detectives here in Atlanta, having spent a lot of time with them, is they have this motto and the motto is: Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

And they really do have that attitude. So they are completely ramped up, 24/7 emergency operations center, 'round the clock, but I think there is something to this theme of it's starting to look more like the seasonal flu.

I don't want to say that -- and they keep saying we're not out of the woods yet. But I think there's a little bit more calmness here than, say, a week ago.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, Ceci, I'm also detecting them saying that we should be preparing for these numbers to keep going up, for more deaths to be reported, for more sicknesses to be -- now we're at 400.

The state of Texas is reporting more confirmed cases than the CDC, for instance, is reporting for Texas. That's when you begin to wonder, what's really happening? Are they managing panic or are they telling us what's really happening?

CECI CONNOLLY: I think I can help put that in context for you, Gwen. What happened within the last couple days is that state labs all got these test kits so that they can confirm the cases themselves.

So the big increase that we saw overnight in the number of confirmed cases was primarily those state labs getting those test kits and being able to do the confirmation themselves. Prior to that, all of those specimens had to come down to the CDC and the CDC lab had to confirm. So some of it is catch-up.

I would also note there's another 700 probable cases in the United States. CDC Acting Director Rich Besser said today we're looking at probably 1,100 right now, and we'll see more of those increases.

The other quick reason why we're seeing more is that it's pretty clear this flu is still being transmitted in the United States, so there are still people who are infecting other people.

GWEN IFILL: So it's fair to say that, at 400, we're going to continue to see the numbers go up, even if health officials are telling us maybe the worst has passed?

CECI CONNOLLY: Yes. It's a matter of catching up in the laboratories, and it's a matter of some folks are still transmitting.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post from Atlanta, thank you so much.

CECI CONNOLLY: Thanks, Gwen.

Flu costs Mexico $2 billion

Arturo Mendicutti
Mexico Chamber of Commerce
In Mexico City, accumulated losses amount to $51 million a day and a total loss of over $600 million.

GWEN IFILL: Mexico began returning to normalcy, as the flu outbreak there eased, but the government said the crisis has cost the country more than $2 billion.

For the latest on that, we have a report from Ray Suarez in Mexico City.

RAY SUAREZ: "Stay masked. Stay clean. Keep your distance." That's the word from the top, as these police get ready to start their workday and the people of Mexico City anticipate the end of the red alert. Many are taking the advice, and some are not.

On the final day of the emergency guidelines in Mexico City, you can feel some parts of this urban giant starting to shake itself awake. Travel a few blocks more, and you'll find normally busy streets nearly deserted.

As the new cases of flu slow to a trickle and the economic restrictions continue to bite, Mexicans have begun to add up their successes and count their losses.

And that's really the tension at the heart of the debate: Once the public starts to perceive that the virus has been successfully suppressed, why keep the restrictions in place? After all, what you're looking at is billions of pesos not changing hands.

The National Chamber of Commerce of Mexico already has preliminary numbers.

ARTURO MENDICUTTI, Mexico Chamber of Commerce (through translator): In Mexico City, accumulated losses amount to $51 million a day and a total loss of over $600 million.

Small businesses struggle

RAY SUAREZ: Mendicutti says the shutdown hits different sectors in different ways. Domestic consumers will unleash pent-up demand after five days when they weren't buying much; some of those losses will be regained.

But the tourist sector, already reeling from the recession in the United States and adverse publicity from the drug wars, is taking a catastrophic blow. Hotels are nearly empty. Tour operators in the capital have buses sitting idle, paying wages while selling no tickets.

Hospitality industries are different. At a little Italian restaurant on a tree-lined street, Felipe Muzquiz offers a microscopic example of a macroeconomic blow to Mexico.

"Sure," Muzquiz says, "you can't put a price on human life." But the restaurant shutdowns ordered by the government came at the worst possible time. He stocked up his kitchen for last weekend, then sold almost no food. His place immediately went from selling more than 200 meals a day to two meals a day. The permission to serve takeout meant nothing.

He paid his staff, gave them the leftover food he couldn't store, and thought about how his problems don't end at his restaurant's front door.

FELIPE MUZQUIZ, restaurant owner (through translator): I can't pay my provider, and then he can't pay his provider. I'll give you an example. I buy fruit and vegetables from my hometown provider, but if I can't pay him, then how is he going to pay the guy he buys from?

RAY SUAREZ: Perhaps the alerts were necessary, and they seem to have worked, Muzquiz concedes, but for him the pain won't even stop when he can reopen tomorrow.

FELIPE MUZQUIZ (through translator): It's going to be impossible to recoup what I've lost. And now with the new restrictions, we have to have several feet between tables. How will I have enough space for my tables?

Officials try to revive tourism

Rossana Fuentes Berain
International Studies Professor
[W]e are slowly, but firmly opening up our affairs to the world. This country 10, 15 years ago would have managed differently what happened, because we were not an open society.

RAY SUAREZ: Just a few blocks away, friends gather for a board game and relief from cabin fever brought on by the restrictions at the home of a nationally known social critic, Rossana Fuentes Berain. She praised her country for acting quicker than countries like China. Fuentes says the Chinese withheld information about the virus outbreak SARS.

ROSSANA FUENTES BERAIN, professor, International Studies: I believe that President Calderon and his team and also the people from various political parties that are in government in the Mexican republic were cautious. And I don't think that we should be punished as a country because we did what China didn't when the SARS broke. Mexico responsibly enough cut the possibility of exponential growth of this virus.

RAY SUAREZ: Fuentes said the quick reaction, coordination with other countries, and the willingness to take the short-term economic pain showed her and the rest of the world a new seriousness.

ROSSANA FUENTES BERAIN: This is a different Mexico. I mean, we are slowly, but firmly opening up our affairs to the world. This country 10, 15 years ago would have managed differently what happened, because we were not an open society.

RAY SUAREZ: Arturo Mendicutti's Chamber of Commerce members are quickly trying to respond to the crisis in tourism, the country's third-largest industry. They're cleaning up to reassure travelers.

ARTURO MENDICUTTI (through translator): We're working intensely in all hotels, carrying out in-depth total cleaning to guarantee the health of our visitors. And we're ready for the re-launch.

RAY SUAREZ: And Mexico's national government has promised tax breaks and subsidies to get the tourist industry back on its feet.

Maybe optimism, like H1N1, is infectious. The Mexican peso, battered by the flu epidemic, has taken back some of its losses against the dollar.