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Biden Clarifies Travel Comments

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The White House issued an apology today - sort of. It was for anyone who may have been alarmed this morning by comments from Vice President Joe Biden. Asked about traveling during the swine flu outbreak, the vice president gave what experts in and out of government say was some very bad advice. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The Obama administration has been very cautious and measured in its public comments on swine flu, following the tone of the president himself, who has said the outbreak was cause for a concern, but not panic. But Vice President Biden, well known for occasionally departing from the script, was asked on the NBC "Today Show" this morning what advice he'd give a family member about flying to Mexico.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. 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. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if I - if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.

Dr. MARK GENDREAU (Vice Chair, Emergency Medicine, Lahey Clinic): With all due respect of the vice president, every scientific evidence that we have contradicts everything that he stated today.

NAYLOR: That's Dr. Mark Gendreau, vice chair of emergency medicine at the Lahey Clinic outside Boston. Gendreau has researched and written extensively about flying and the spread of diseases. He says a person who sneezes, talks loud or even spits can spread the flu virus, but only so far.

Dr. GENDREAU: That large droplet has a range of about three feet, which would put you two seats in front, two seats behind, roughly speaking.

NAYLOR: Dr. Gendreau recommends travelers wash their hands often and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, but adds that people basically should not worry about flying. Biden's mention of riding on subways prompted a reply from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often rides the subway to work. He did so with great fanfare today, and said he didn't see a lot of people coughing and sneezing.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York): The bottom line is, I feel perfectly safe on the subway, and I think taking the subway doesn't seem to present any greater risks than doing anything else.

NAYLOR: Bloomberg didn't want to criticize Biden, but the airline industry wasn't so forgiving. One airline executive labeled Biden's comments, quote, fear mongering. Jet Blue's CEO, David Barger, was a bit more measured.

Mr. DAVID BARGER (CEO, Jet Blue Airlines): I think that words are very important, especially when we're talking about something a serious as this topic. And the consideration should be taken on the front side before issuing comments such as this.

NAYLOR: The virus may have come rather close to the president himself on his recent trip to Mexico. A member of the president's security detail has had what may have been a case of H1N1 flu, and may have passed that on to some people in suburban Maryland after returning from the trip. The individual involved has since recovered, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said today he had not been within six feet of Mr. Obama, and did not fly aboard Air Force One.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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