Air travelers were taking their own precautions as they passed through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Monday following confirmations of more swine flu cases in the United States and Mexico.
Newlyweds Teresa Rocha and Paolo Cassano carried luggage like other passengers at the airport, but arriving on an international flight from Mexico made them stand out.
“Where we married it was safe — a place called Ciudad Obregón in the state of Sonora,” Rocha said from behind a blue face mask. “There have been no reported cases of swine flu virus where we were.”
The swine flu has been confirmed in about 40 cases in the United States. Mexico officials suspect the flu strain in about 149 deaths in recent weeks. There have been no reported cases of swine flu in Arizona.
Sky Harbor officials said they are prepared to distribute masks to all travelers, but at this time airport workers have not been told to take that step by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal authorities at Sky Harbor and other ports of entry around the United States are vigilantly watching for travelers arriving who may show flulike symptoms, such as cough, high fever, sore throat or body aches, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Bonnie Arellano.
If a traveler appears to be very ill, he or she may be questioned regarding their health and travel itinerary, she said.
“If it’s notable, you’re coughing and you appear sick, you’re emanating those signs we’re looking for, we’ll pull you aside, put a mask on you,” and ask questions regarding where a traveler has been and when, Arellano said.
U.S. officials advised Americans against most travel to Mexico on Monday as the swine flu virus that began there has stirred real concerns by spreading to the United States and beyond.
There are 18 daily flights from Phoenix to Mexico, Deputy Aviation Director Deborah Ostreicher said during a press conference with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
“The city of Phoenix for five years has been prepared for this type of contingency” should emergency steps be needed, Gordon said.
“We practice for this at the airport all year long,” Ostreicher said, adding that staff at the airport are “cleaning carefully” all the public areas.
Gordon reiterated that there have been no cases reported in Arizona, and the CDC has advised, “No. 1, go about your normal business. There is not a crisis that should shut down the city, state or airport operations.”
The regular flu season — strain A and B — is already on the decline. The Arizona Department of Health Services has asked its first-line responders — those in doctor’s offices, hospitals and urgent cares — to refer any cases of strain A to it for further testing, said Laura Oxley, a DHS spokeswoman. No such cases have appeared as of now, Oxley said.
“We’ve been watching for things like that. We know influenza changes. We know there have been issues with flu epidemics and pandemics in the past,” Oxley said. “We’re prepared and have increased the surveillance and the communication with the doctors.”
Health officials are urging people to follow typical safety measures for the flu: Stay home if you feel ill or have a high fever or body aches. Frequent hand washing is recommended.
Despite the travel advisory, President Barack Obama said there was reason for concern but not yet “a cause for alarm.”
Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, said that so far the disease in the United States seems less severe than the outbreak in Mexico, where more than 1,600 cases have been reported and where the suspected death toll has climbed to 149. No deaths have been reported in the U.S., and only one hospitalization.
“I wouldn’t be overly reassured by that,” Besser told reporters at CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta. He raised the possibility of more severe cases in the United States.
“We are taking it seriously and acting aggressively,” Besser said. “Until the outbreak has progressed, you really don’t know what it’s going to do.”
The U.S. travel advisory suggests “nonessential travel to Mexico be avoided.”
Returning from Mexico, however, was a different story.
Arriving on an Aeroméxico flight Monday afternoon, David Abramson of Boston said he had been in Mexico for four days.
While there, Abramson said he met people from all around the world. “I had no issues,” he said as he waited for his connecting flight.
A woman arriving on the same Aeroméxico flight, who would only give her first name, said in Mexico City the mind-set was one of extreme caution.
“I wore my face mask on the flight over,” Josefina told reporters surrounding her. “I wore it in Mexico City, as well.”
U.S. health officials sounded similar cautionary notes.
The confirmed cases announced on Monday were double the 20 initially reported by the CDC. Besser said this was due to further testing — not further spreading of the virus — in a New York City school.
Besser said other cases have been reported in the states of Ohio, Kansas, Texas and California. He said that, of the 40 cases, only one person has been hospitalized and all have recovered.
Michelle Donati, spokeswoman for AAA Arizona, said the impact locally has been minimal.
“We are encouraging people to heed the travel advisories. We are continuing to make sure all of our members who have booked Mexico travel to be aware of the situation and to heed warnings,” she said. “We haven’t been made aware of any cruises that have canceled upcoming trips, but we have had one tour operator that is moving the dates of their trip.
“We have had a lot of calls today from concerned travelers, but not many cancellations so far,” Donati said.
She also added that people who purchased travel insurance from AAA before April 24 have some added options such as canceling the insurance, or if they are in Mexico and want to return home early, they would be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses.
Tony LeFevre, owner of Travel Masters of Gilbert, said now that Homeland Security has issued its advisory against nonessential travel to Mexico, “I definitely would not book them at this time. Why take the chance?”
The people he has booked to travel to Mexico are going in May, and he is advising them not to cancel yet.
“They have got a couple of weeks to go by. It may be over by then. But if you don’t have to go, don’t,” LeFevre said.
He also noted the airlines are waiving their change fees to flights to Mexico, which makes it possible for nonessential travelers to hold off and go at a later date.
Arizona State University announced Monday that it hasn’t received any reports of swine flu on its four campuses. And none of the six ASU students studying abroad at universities in Mexico have expressed concern about the influenza outbreak, said Kathleen Fairfax, an associate vice president at ASU’s Center for Global Education Services.
“We’re not in any kind of a state of panic or anything,” Fairfax said. “It’s just one of the wait-and-see sorts of things.”
The ASU students are now in Monterrey and Guadalajara, she said, not Mexico City, where the disease has killed more than 100 people.
Tribune writer Ryan Gabrielson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.