U.S. officials declare public-health emergency as worries of global pandemic increase.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 27 2009 6:37 AM

Attack of the Swine Flu

Click here to read more from Slate on the swine flu. 

The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with, and everyone else fronts, the growing fears that the world may be entering a global pandemic as U.S. officials declare a public-health emergency  in light of swine flu being detected in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Eight cases were identified in New York and one in Ohio, bringing the total of confirmed cases in the United States to 20. Several countries have said they've identified people who had recently traveled to affected areas and are suffering from influenzalike symptoms, but there are no confirmed cases anywhere else in the world. Still, some have issued travel bans and are instituting plans to quarantine travelers who may have the disease, which is incredibly difficult to tell apart from a regular flu.

The New York Timesleads with a look at the nationwide shortage of doctors, a problem that the Obama administration is trying to fix as it works on proposals to increase medical coverage for millions of people. Of particular concern is the shortage of primary-care providers. Some are suggesting that Medicare payments to general practitioners should be increased, but specialists say their payments shouldn't be cut to achieve this. USA Todayleads with data that show the nation's largest electric utilities increased spending on lobbyists by 30 percent in the last six months of 2008 as Congress began to debate climate change seriously.

U.S. public health officials struggled to emphasize that even though it may sound serious, a "nationwide public health emergency" is no reason to panic. "That sounds more severe than really it is," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "This is standard operating procedure and allows us to free up federal, state and local agencies and their resources." One-quarter of the country's 50 million unit strategic reserve of anti-flu drugs will be released to states that have seen outbreaks. In Canada, six cases of swine flu have been reported in people with some link to recent travel to Mexico. The cases identified in the United States and Canada have been milder than in Mexico, where as many as 103 people have died, although only 22 of those have been confirmed as swine flu deaths. Only one of the U.S. patients has required hospitalization, and none had been treated with anti-viral drugs.

Several countries have instituted measures to prevent the disease from spreading, "in many cases appearing to be near panic," notes the LAT. Some countries are warning against traveling to the United States and Mexico, while others have said they'll quarantine travelers who appear to be sick. Russia and other countries have even banned pork imports from Mexico, even though experts insist people can't get the flu from eating pork.

Panic over the swine flu has been greatest in Mexico City, where religious services were canceled, many restaurants and movie theaters were closed, and soccer games were played without spectators as many city residents decided to stay indoors over the weekend. The city of 20 million people "looked like a ghost town," declares the WSJ. Those who dared to venture outside did so wearing face masks. As the death toll continues to rise, it's becoming clear that younger adults may be the most susceptible to the disease, reports the WPin a separate front-page piece. Why that may be remains "one of several mysteries about the virus," declares the paper. In a piece inside, the LAT notes that experts have no idea what's going to happen with this new strain of swine flu. "We don't know what this virus will do," one expert said. "It could burn itself out in the next four to six weeks and we never see it again. It could burn itself out over a more extended period of time."

So what exactly is swine flu, and how can it be identified? Most of the papers attempt to answer this question, but it's none too easy. After all, the symptoms look just like the regular flu, and that's why experts recommend that people only seek medical attention if they're suffering extreme symptoms, such as having trouble breathing. The swine flu that has been identified, known as A/H1N1, "is a previously unknown combination of pig, human and avian flu viruses," notes the Post, explaining that pigs can sometimes act as "mixing vessels" for the viruses.

The NYT off-leads a long profile of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that details how he formed "unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street's giant financial institutions" during his five years as head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Despite this close relationship, he failed to spot troubles at the banking institutions he was regulating until it was too late and has since pushed for actions that often benefit the industry. "I don't think that Tim Geithner was motivated by anything other than concern to get the financial system working again," often-quoted, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said. "But I think that mindsets can be shaped by people you associate with, and you come to think that what's good for Wall Street is good for America." In order to manage the securities that the Fed now holds, Geithner gave three no-bid contracts to BlackRock, a "firm with deep ties to the New York Fed," notes the paper.

John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch, tells the WSJ that Bank of America is lying. Thain has largely stayed quiet after he was fired amid public outcry that resulted from huge bonuses being given to Merrill employees despite the firm's giant losses. At the time, Bank of America said Thain was solely responsible for the bonuses, but in an interview with the WSJ, he says that just isn't true. Thain says he discussed the bonuses with Kenneth Lewis, Bank of America's CEO, and they both agreed the money could be paid out before Merrill was acquired. "The suggestion Bank of America was not heavily involved in this process, and that I alone made these decisions, is simply not true," Thain tells the paper.

The NYT reports that IBM will announce today that it will finish developing a computer program to compete in a game of Jeopardy! If the program manages to beat its human opponents, "the field of artificial intelligence will have made a leap forward," notes the NYT. Although a computer has already beat a world champion in chess, experts say that beating humans in a game of Jeopardy! is much more complicated since it has so many nuances. In order to make it a bit fairer, the computer would not be connected to the Internet to retrieve information. Still, experts say the biggest challenge isn't putting enough information into the computer but, rather, getting it to figure out what it should be searching for when presented with a question.

In the NYT's op-ed page, Mark Taylor, the chairman of Columbia University's religion department, calls graduate education "the Detroit of higher learning." The vast majority of graduate programs prepare students for jobs that don't exist and arm them with skills for which there is a decreasing demand, all while charging more for the privilege every year. "The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn't conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations," declares Taylor, who says it's one of the main reasons why students are still encouraged to enroll in doctoral programs. In order to compete in the 21st century, "colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured."

The WSJ takes a look at how pirate enthusiasts are mad at the pirates off the Somalia coast for ruining all their fun. The people who don the traditional pirate clothing and punctuate their sentences with "aaaar, matey," have found it's suddenly less fun to espouse the liberating pirate lifestyle when Somali teenagers armed with AK-47s are threatening world commerce. "There ought to be a different word for pirates in their current incarnation," said the co-founder of the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day. When he suggested different names on his MySpace page, "I got a huge response," he said, "from people saying 'amen.' Or 'aaaar-men.' "

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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