At least five members of a San Diego church group who spent more than a week volunteering in North Idaho have tested positive for the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.
More than 100 members of the religious group arrived in Bonners Ferry by chartered bus sometime last week. The group hosted various events in the community, including barbecues for law enforcement, and completed volunteer projects, including ramp-building for people with disabilities, Panhandle Health District officials said.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization on Thursday acknowledged what many health experts have been saying for weeks: The outbreak of H1N1 virus is now a pandemic.
“The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO. “This virus is now unstoppable.”
In a letter sent to member countries, Chan said she is raising the agency’s infectious disease alert to Phase 6, its highest level, in recognition of the fact that the virus is undergoing communitywide transmission in Australia as well as in North America. Such spread in two distinct regions of the world is the primary criterion for raising the alert level.
The first confirmed case of swine flu among the San Diego church group was reported June 4, after a state lab in Boise tested samples from the woman, in her 20s. Over the weekend, seven more group members suffered flu-like symptoms. The state lab confirmed four of them had swine flu.
The group members had apparently traveled from eastern Idaho, where the woman had already become sick and been tested. It wasn’t until they got to Bonners Ferry that the case was confirmed and additional individuals became ill, said Cynthia Taggart, health district spokeswoman.
Heath district officials said the group responded quickly, isolating sick group members at a Ponderay, Idaho, hotel. A Bonners Ferry doctor also saw dozens of group members over the weekend who had been exposed or exhibited symptoms, the health district said.
No community members have reported symptoms. The group left by bus to return to California on Tuesday.
“They were wearing masks and they had a lot of hand sanitizer,” Taggart said.
The World Health Organization said the pandemic is only “moderate in severity” and cautioned against overreactions to the increased alert level.