Federal officials are learning to strike the proper balance between planning and alarm.
This week the White House released estimates of how a "swine flu" epidemic in the US might play out in the fall and winter. The numbers of potentially ill and dying might have seemed alarming, but as the authors of the report to the president emphasized: "This is a planning scenario, not a prediction."
That's an important caveat that the public needs to remember – if it's not drowned out by the fearful din of the media and others repeating the scenario as fact.
When this virus surfaced in Mexico last April, anxiety spread faster around the globe than was necessary, in hindsight. On NBC's "Today" show, Vice President Joe Biden went way beyond the official line and advised avoiding confined spaces, such as planes. That in turn set off klaxons at the White House. What? Bring air travel to a halt? Subways, too?
The administration quickly backpedaled, not only because of the economic implications of Mr. Biden's unguarded remark, but also because he simply overreacted – as many people tend to do. As it turns out, the concerns about extremely high fatality rates were overblown.