pig subway artSick transit?arvindgrover via flickrThis morning, Vice President Biden went slightly off-message about swine flu — just enough to freak out the White House, and potentially enough to freak out hypochondriacal Americans. Appearing on NBC’s Today Show, he responded to a question from Matt Lauer by saying he would advise his own family not to “go anywhere in confined places now.” He specifically mentioned planes, subways, and even cars as spaces that could be unsafe (he also mentioned classrooms and, uh, containers).

The White House scrambled to tweak the message, saying that all Americans should avoid air travel to Mexico and that only those who are feeling sick should avoid hopping on the subway. And lord knows public transportation doesn’t need a mass exodus, given the troubles it’s already facing.

But is Biden right? Should we avoid the subway and other confined spaces?

Not so fast, says David Goldberg of Smart Growth America, which advocates for public transportation as part of community planning. “Certainly it’s understandable that people are concerned,” he told me. “But if you can’t get on a subway or a plane, then you probably shouldn’t be in an office where they recycle the air, and you probably shouldn’t be at a shopping mall.” Far from “holing up in our bunkers,” Goldberg says, the best approach is to use common sense. “The precautions you should take if you’re using public transportation are the same as if you’re in any public space.”

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Dr. John Balbus, chief health scientist at Environmental Defense, echoes that sentiment, and says the current threat is getting blown out of proportion. “Every year the United States experiences an influenza epidemic that kills thousands of people,” he says. “It runs from October through March, and we don’t tell people to stop using the subway then.” Balbus, a member of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, says there are no indications at this stage that swine flu is much more severe than other flu strains we’ve encountered recently.

“Is it risk-free to take the subway? No, absolutely not,” says Balbus. “But it’s not risk-free to take it during any flu outbreak. It just requires common-sense precautions.”

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What are those precautions? The basics: Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and for the love of Pete, stay home if you’re sick. And one more tip for those who brave the subway, says Goldberg: “Don’t wrestle on the floor with a sneezing stranger.”

Here’s Biden in the (uninfected) flesh: