Biden flu comments prompt complaint, correction

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden drew a complaint from the travel industry on Thursday by saying he would tell his family to stay off planes or subways to avoid a new flu strain, sending the White House into damage control.

Biden drifted from the Obama administration’s cautious message on the swine flu virus when asked by NBC’s “Today” show what he would tell members of his family if they asked whether they should get on a commercial plane to Mexico in the next week.

“I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” he said.

He said the problem was that “when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft.”

“I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway. So from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation,” he said.

Biden, a former senator, is famous for making blunt comments and sometimes gaffes. The Obama White House scrambled to clean up what he had said.

“He said something on TV differently than what he meant to say,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the Presidential house in San Jose, March 30, 2009. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

President Barack Obama and his deputies have been careful in their public statements about the flu virus so as not to unduly alarm Americans.

“If somebody is feeling sick, if somebody is exhibiting symptoms of being sick, then they should take all necessary precautions,” Gibbs said. “Obviously, if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that.”

The U.S. travel industry, already suffering from the recession, is at further risk by the H1N1 flu virus if it slows travel.


The U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry group, issued a statement it said was in response to “recent comments that might discourage Americans from using public transportation or commercial aviation during the ongoing spread of swine flu.”

“Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the association.

Dow urged Americans to heed the advice of medical experts when determining how best to manage health concerns during the flu outbreak, and to listen to Obama.

“According to President Obama, swine flu is a cause for concern, but not panic. President Obama’s measured and responsible comments are appropriate and should provide useful guidance to other elected officials,” Dow said.

Biden’s spokesperson, Elizabeth Alexander, sought to clarify Biden’s remarks in a statement issued shortly after his television interview.

“The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico,” she said.

“If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week,” Alexander said.

Additional reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by Peter Cooney