Plenty Of Flu Caution As Mexico Returns To Work

By: Katherine Corcoran and Julie Watson, Associated Press Email
By: Katherine Corcoran and Julie Watson, Associated Press Email

MEXICO CITY (AP) - In gleaming office towers and gritty markets, Mexicans returned to work Wednesday after a five-day swine flu shutdown, and dozens returned to a heroes' welcome from "humiliating" quarantines in China. But Mexico's death toll rose, feeding fears of more infections now that crowds are gathering again.

The World Health Organization urged countries not to quarantine visitors or impose trade restrictions without scientific reasons. But China defiantly justified its quarantines as protection for its densely populated cities. And even impoverished Haiti turned away a Mexican ship carrying desperately needed food aid because of flu fears.

In Mexico City, friends and co-workers greeted each other with back slaps, firm handshakes - and dollops of hand sanitizer. Some high-rises stationed doctors in their lobbies who questioned returning employees and required visitors to fill out forms stating they had no flu symptoms. Maitre d's in surgical masks stood at attention amid rows of sidewalk tables that were pulled out and washed down for the first time in days.

"We're returning to normal," said Eugenio Velis, 57, a graphic artist sipping coffee with friends in the trendy Condesa neighborhood.

But Ernesto Viloria, 40, worried about his children using public transit and returning to school.

"Nothing can be the same," insisted Viloria, who works in finance. "The virus continues, even though it's declining, and we have to pay attention."

Mexico's government said the shutdown reduced the spread of the virus at its epicenter. Deaths have slowed as the country mobilized an aggressive public health response to the epidemic that has sickened thousands in 24 countries.

Sweden and Poland were the latest countries to confirm swine flu cases, both in women who had recently visited the U.S. South Korea confirmed a third case in a 62-year-old woman who traveled on the same flight as an infected Catholic nun returning from a trip to Mexico.

In Mexico, the confirmed death toll reached 42 Wednesday - mostly as backlogged cases got tested, but also two new deaths on Tuesday. It also confirmed more than 1,100 nonfatal cases. Eighty percent of Mexico's swine flu infections have been in and around the capital, and a majority of the dead were between 20 and 39 years old.

There was some concern that Mexico was relaxing too quickly, especially with high schools and universities reopening Thursday, and primary schools reopening next week. While "filter teams" prepared to screen out sick students and teachers, epidemiologists warn that the virus has spread throughout Mexico, and could bounce back.

"We have seen a tendency (of the outbreak) to diminish but not disappear," Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova acknowledged.

Indeed, this swine flu seems to have a long incubation period - 5-7 days before people notice symptoms, according to Dr. Marc-Alain Widdowson, a medical epidemiologist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now tracking the flu in Mexico City. And that means the virus can keep being spread by people who won't know to stay home.

While restaurants opened, Mexico City's government indefinitely closed bars, discos, gymnasiums, movie theaters and dance halls. Sports halls and arenas were allowed to reopen only at half capacity. Archaeological sites began reopening Wednesday, with museums to follow.

From gritty taco stands to the Cartier store on Mexico City's version of Rodeo Drive, people were glad to be back at work.

Jesus Cortez, 43, manned El Taquito Veloz, "The Speedy Little Taco," in the rough Tepito neighborhood, offering roasted pork on a spit as its specialty - tacos al pastor. Nearby, workers sliced chunks of meat from a boiled steer's skull, flanked by cilantro branches.

"People are just starting to come back out, but they're still afraid," Cortez said. "We're going to have to open on Sundays now, and we're going to have to work really hard. If not, we're not going to make enough money."

Cartier manager Paula Guerra, 34, waited out the furlough in Valle de Bravo, a lakeside retreat for Mexico City's well-to-do, and returned Wednesday blowing air kisses to her employees through her surgical mask. But she, too, was hoping to make up for lost sales - in Mother's Day merchandise.

Rafael Ramirez, 65, rushed to the just-reopened Metropolitan Cathedral to pray to a Christ statue known as the Lord of Health, which the church brought out from storage for the first time in 300 years.

"I gave thanks that the city is returning to normal, and prayed so countries stop looking down their noses at us," Ramirez said.

Mexico has protested Chinese quarantines and China's cancellation of direct flights between the countries as discriminatory.

First lady Margarita Zavala was up before dawn to greet 136 Mexicans who were flown home from China on a government charter. None had flu symptoms, Mexican diplomats said.

While Zavala pointedly removed her face mask and smiled broadly as she welcomed the Mexicans home, the scene in Shanghai was far different: 119 returning Chinese gamely waved their country's flags as health workers in full body suits escorted them into a weeklong quarantine.

Several Mexican passengers said they were treated well in China. Others begged to differ.

"It was discrimination and humiliation in my case," said Myrna Berlanga, who said she was taken off a flight from the United States and put in a mobile laboratory for five hours without food, water or a bathroom. "They took me out because of my passport."

Haitian officials said they would not accept a Mexican navy ship carrying 77 tons of rice, fertilizer and emergency food kits, said Mexico's ambassador, Zadalinda Gonzalez y Reynero. She said Haiti asked for the ship to come "on another occasion."

Haitian officials had no immediate comment.

In San Diego, Calif., the U.S. Navy canceled the deployment of the USS Dubuque, an amphibious transport ship, after a crew member was confirmed to have swine flu. About 50 others were suspected cases, and all crew members were being treated with anti-viral drugs.

The ship was to leave June 1 on a humanitarian mission to the South Pacific, Navy spokesman Lt. Sean Robertson said.

And the Philippines urged boxing idol Manny Pacquiao to postpone a triumphant return home after beating Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas, saying a motorcade in Manila could risk spreading the virus through adoring crowds. There are no confirmed cases in the Philippines.

In Washington, officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they identified genetic characteristics of the virus and were in position to produce a vaccine if one is needed.

Dr. Dennis Carroll, a special adviser on pandemics with the U.S. Agency for International Development, said investments to stave off an avian flu epidemic aided the quick swine flu response.

Canada, meanwhile, said researchers at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, genetically sequenced three samples of the virus from Mexico and Canada, a breakthrough they hope will answer questions about how it spreads and mutates.
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Associated Press writers Margie Mason, Mark Stevenson, Lisa J. Adams and Juan Carlos Llorca in Mexico City and Jonathan M. Katz in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.


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