New York: Health-scare symptoms

What with Wall Street and a mini-panic caused by a low-flying jet, New Yorkers have had their share of worries lately - which may explain why they're not as nervous about the swine flu outbreak as one would expect. Still, they are running out to buy special soap.

UK swine flu 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
UK swine flu 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Forget Campbell's Soup. The newest recession-busting investment? Purell antibacterial gel. The outbreak of swine flu - which killed a toddler from Mexico City visiting relatives in Texas - prompted an immediate run on hand sanitizers this week, as people rushed to heed health officials' advice to wash their hands, not just when they knew they should, but as often as possible. All across the country, little pump dispensers appeared in public bathrooms and offices where plain old soap was sometimes hard to come by; one store in Vermont reported that it had run out altogether by Wednesday. "I've been here eight years and it's the first time I've seen that happen," Marc Lewis, manager of the Shelburne Supermarket, told his local television news station. And despite the kerfuffle in Israel over whether or not calling the flu after "swine" was too treif, Jewish mothers worldwide wasted no time making sure their children, grown or not, were armed with the stuff, calling in reminders and firing off e-mails offering to cover the few dollars each bottle costs. A Jewish day school in Seattle started posting daily updates on confirmed cases and deaths throughout the US and Canada, including a link on its Twitter feed, while the Secure Community Network - an offshoot of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations - forwarded materials from the government's Centers for Disease Control to hundreds of Jewish community centers. BUT IN New York, epicenter of one of the two largest infection clusters in the US, no one seemed too fussed. In March and April 2003, the outbreak of the SARS respiratory virus from Asia was accompanied by gloomy weather and late-winter snow flurries; the confirmation of swine flu in dozens of students at a Catholic prep school in Queens came amid a glorious springtime heat wave that left the city pulsing with the glow of healthy vitality, or at least of a light sunburn. "The swine flu here looks like the garden variety flu we see every year," is what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told his constituents in a message that could have been read as a warning to stay vigilant, but wound up sounding more like encouragement to shrug the whole thing off, even as countries around the world were busy suspending flight schedules, banning pork products and observing pandemic warnings. New York has enough to worry about, starting with the plane that went flying low around southern Manhattan on Monday, apparently as part of a White House photo shoot. Financier Bernard Madoff may be in a downtown jail cell - perhaps just down the hall from the single captured Somali pirate - but Citigroup and Bank of America may still be teetering on the edge of insolvency, according to government regulators. And the jobs just keep disappearing - more than 40 percent of all new positions created since 2003, according to the state labor department. So, as Bloomberg warned hundreds more may fall ill in the coming days, and the disease may be raised to a full pandemic, he added the sensible note he's known for: "No one should be afraid to go about their day." Just remember to pick up some sanitizer on your way home, he might have added.