VP Biden says dumb things about swine flu

While on the road for several hours yesterday after visiting family, I finally settled on National Public Radio. I hear lots of good stuff on NPR when I’m in the mood for it. Just a few miles from home, I heard a story about some bad risk communication from an uninformed political figure. That’s always fun in my line of work…

According to the NPR story aired yesterday (heard by clicking Listen Now), when asked about the outbreak of swine flu on the Today show, U.S. vice president Joe Biden said he has told his family,

“I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now. It’s not that you’re going to Mexico – it’s that you’re in a confined aircraft and when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft.”

Dr. Mark Gendreau, whose research has focused on flying and the spread of diseases, was quoted as saying that a sneeze would only travel about 3 feet. Only people two seats in front or two seats behind a sneezer on an airplane were in danger of contacting infected droplets.

Dr. Gendreau recommended washing hands often and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers to limit the spread of infection.

Biden also told the Today show that, if they had another form of transportation, he does not suggest that his family ride the subway.

In response, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often rides the subway to work, said,

“I feel perfectly safe on the subway and taking the subway does not present any more risks than anything else.”

The text version of the NPR story now available online states that,

“[T]he vice president’s office [later] issued a statement translating Biden-speak into bureaucratese: Biden was merely restating the same advice the Obama administration is giving everyone, to avoid unnecessary travel. The statement also reiterated the now-familiar admonition to cover your face when you cough.”

That’s not what I heard.