Everyone Offering Advice; Some Get in Trouble

In this media-saturated world, where news is updated around the clock on TV and on the Web, it shouldn’t be surprising that conflicting and sometimes downright incorrect information is reported. This is especially true of such a huge emerging story as the swine flu outbreak (oh, right, we’re supposed to be calling it the H1N1 virus, or the Mexican flu, or the North American flu, depending on who you ask).

Since it’s on the collective mind of Americans (and the rest of the world), people are wondering what they can do to protect themselves and their families. It seems like everyone is offering advice— and sometimes getting in trouble for doing so. Enter Vice President Joe Biden.

On the Today Show on Thursday, Biden, who has created somewhat of a reputation for his loose lips, made some comments that the Obama administration quickly went on damage control to clarify.
He said, in part: “It’s not that it’s going to Mexico. It’s you’re in a confined aircraft; when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft.”

He added: “I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway,” he continued. “. . . . If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it’s a different thing.”

Administration officials went on the record to clear the air on what Biden “meant to say.”

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It’s not that what Biden said was wrong, or that he said it with bad intentions. It’s that the federal government is trying to stay on message, and their current recommendations are the following: It is not necessary for all Americans to avoid public transportation and travel (except non-essential trips to Mexico). However, if you are feeling sick, stay home from work or school and avoid public places.

In this and any public health crisis, it is important that the public receives clear, specific guidance that conveys the relevant information without leading to unnecessary hysteria. That said, I guess it remains to be seen what the next PR gaffe will be…

-Patti Truant