Mexico City waits to reopen as officials calm H1N1 fears

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said swine flu is no more danerous than the regular flu virus.
Residents in Mexico City restlessly waited for life to return to normal as officials from both Mexico and the United States said the worst may be over in the swine flu outbreak. For now.

By Tuesday, the number of confirmed cases of the Influenza A (H1N1) virus stood at 1,085 in 21 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The count includes 25 deaths in Mexico and one in the United States. Mexican officials, citing improvement in the battle against the virus, announced plans to reopen government offices and restaurants on Wednesday — and museums, libraries and churches the following day. In the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged claims by Mexican authorities who believe their cases have peaked and said, “I have no reason to think that is inaccurate.” “What the epidemiologists are seeing now with this particular strain of H1N1 is that the severity of the disease, the severity of the flu — how sick you get — is not stronger than regular seasonal flu,” she said. But officials from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to monitor developments in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season arrives over the next few months. Results there will help determine whether a stronger strain of the virus will return to the United States and the Northern Hemisphere during the fall flu season. Mexican officials ordered a wide-ranging shutdown of Mexico City last week. The week-long closure encompasses the Cinco de Mayo holiday Tuesday. University and secondary school students can return to class Thursday while younger students will wait until May 11.

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Other public venues in the city such as bars, nightclubs, theaters and sports stadiums will remain closed indefinitely. In all, about 35,000 public venues were shut down, transforming this bustling metropolis of 20 million people into a ghost town overnight. Soccer games were postponed, restaurants only served take-out, and Sunday Mass — which normally draws millions of worshippers — was canceled. “It’s surreal to say the least. And the masks add to that,” said Cristiano Oliveira, a Brazilian living in Mexico City for the last year and a half. “There was, to me, at least the impression that Mexico City would never slow down. And now it’s halted.” In the Condesa neighborhood of the city, Alfredo Sono Dillman whiled away the days watching movies on a home computer. “We all live inside our houses because the schools have been canceled until May 11,” Dillman, 15, said. “I’m not scared like last week. This week has been easier. Now we know much better what is going on.” Doctors at the Mexico City Naval Hospital offered up similar optimism. The hospital has examined more than 2,000 patients since Wednesday. None of them tested positive for swine flu, said Dr. Manuel Velasco. “That may mean the virus is stabilizing and then can be totally controlled,” he said. “But we have to wait for the new week to begin.” Early Tuesday, the Mexican and Chinese government sent chartered flights to each other’s countries to pick up their respective nationals stranded or quarantined because of the global swine flu outbreak. An Aeromexico flight was making several stops throughout China to collect nearly 70 citizens who were being held in quarantine across the communist nation as part of its strict swine flu-control measures. Meanwhile, a U.S. Embassy official said four Americans are or were quarantined in China: two in Beijing; two in the southern Guangdong province. China suspended all flights into and out of Mexico after a 25-year-old Mexican man who arrived in Shanghai from Mexico City on Thursday became the country’s first confirmed case of the virus. As a result, 200 Chinese citizens were stranded in Mexico City and Tijuana. A China Southern Airlines flight was expected to fetch them Tuesday, state media said. WHO officials said there were no immediate plans to raise its pandemic alert to the highest level, from 5 to 6. And in the United States, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said she was “heartened” by the reports in Mexico. But because U.S. cases began later than those in Mexico, the peak here will likely come later. By early Tuesday, 279 cases have tested positive in 36 U.S. states, according to the CDC’s latest count. Several states have announced additional confirmed cases, but those were not included in the CDC total. New York has the most U.S. cases, with 73 confirmed by the CDC and another 17 confirmed by state health officials.

The St. Francis Preparatory School in New York — which had the first confirmed U.S. cases of swine flu — reopened Monday with a “completely sanitized” interior for students, school officials said. More than 530 schools have been closed nationwide because of the outbreak, affecting about 330,000 students in 24 states, the U.S. Department of Education said Monday.