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Benjamin Spillman

Swine flu could affect Vegas

28 April 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Mexico appears to be ground zero for the swine flu outbreak, but the biggest fallout for Las Vegas could come from a response that shuts down travel.

Already European Union Health Commissioner Andorra Vassiliou is telling Europeans to avoid travel to Mexico or the United States, "unless it is very urgent."

Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said nonessential travel to Mexico should be avoided.

It's the second time this year anti-travel sentiment has swept the travel industry. The first occurred in February when anger over bank bailouts prompted myriad public scoldings for companies spending money on travel to Las Vegas and other pleasant destinations.

"We must address the situation with measured, pragmatic responses so as not to cause panic and negative consequences to the economy if health risks are not imminent," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a hospitality trade group.

Signs of the outbreak are visible in Las Vegas even if the illness isn't.

At McCarran International Airport workers for the Customs and Border Patrol distribute fliers to inbound passengers from Mexico that describe symptoms of swine flu and instructions for what people should do if they feel sick.

The handbills were also distributed at ticket counters and public information kiosks around the airport.

McCarran Deputy Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said Transportation Security Administration officials are also on the lookout for people showing symptoms.

"TSA has behavioral officers roaming to watch for people with severe symptoms," Vassiliadis said.

Of the about 117,000 passengers who arrive and depart McCarran daily, just 675 are on flights by Mexican airlines, according to the latest traffic data from the airport.

Airline workers are being told to keep an eye on passengers and report to the Centers for Disease Control if any show symptoms of swine flu, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group for airlines.

Airline workers aren't the only ones on the lookout for symptoms.

In a memo to employees, Tim Jones, executive director of safety and health for MGM Mirage, updated the company's response to the outbreak.

MGM Mirage owns nine hotels on the Strip with more than 50,000 hotel rooms.

"We get guests from all over the world and we work in a business that has a high number of groups of people congregated at once, from theaters to convention groups," he said.

"So the guidance to all of those groups, and the employees who service them, is the same: frequent hand-washing and staying in when you're ill."