A mock press conference during an emergency training exercise turned real Monday after swine flu made headlines around the world over the weekend.

A mock press conference during an emergency training exercise turned real Monday after swine flu made headlines around the world over the weekend.

State and local officials had been planning the training exercise for months, and their scenario included mock press conferences. But when reporters gathered at the Jackson County Community Justice Building, the subject turned to swine flu.

Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's medical officer, said scientists should know much more about the influenza outbreak in several days, when a clear pattern of its behavior emerges. He said the virus has a short incubation period, usually two to three days, so researchers should soon be able to determine where the virus has spread and how many people have been infected.

"This is going to take a little time for us all to figure out," Shames said. "We really need to take a deep breath and let developments develop. In the next 48 hours we're going to know a lot more.

"Information gathering just takes time," Shames said. "What we don't want to do is rush off half-cocked and overstress our (health care) system when we don't know what to do."

Shames noted that the influenza virus is extremely contagious during its early phase, so people should stay home if they feel ill with flu-like symptoms, which usually include rapid onset and some combination of muscular aches, headache, sore throat, dry cough, fever, chills, headache and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting with this strain of flu.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site notes people who are infected can spread the virus to others a full day before they show symptoms and up to seven days more after becoming sick.

Shames said concern about a bird flu pandemic over the past few years prompted local, state and federal public health officials to develop emergency plans that could be deployed for any pandemic flu virus.

"We're ready for this," Shames said. "This is what we've been preparing for. I feel confident your public health agencies are suited up and ready to go."

He noted that people in Mexico have died of the virus, but no fatalities have been reported in the United States.

"Viruses are unpredictable," he said. "It could have mutated. That could be one explanation for what they saw in Mexico and what we're seeing in the U.S."

"As soon as it's clear to us what we're dealing with, we can advise people what to do," he said.

"So much of what we're going to do depends on the pattern of this disease," he said. "That pattern hasn't emerged yet."

Shames said face masks available at drug stores can help slow the spread of the disease by collecting microscopic virus particles that are dispersed into the air by sneezing and coughing. However, such commonly available masks do little to protect the wearer from virus particles already in the air because they can enter the body at any moist surface, such as the eyes.

"Keeping sick people from having contact with the public is the most important thing," he said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.