(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click [nFLU])
*312 test positive for swine flu in Mexico
*Some deaths may never be confirmed
*Long holiday weekend lets many stay home
By Mica Rosenberg and Louise Egan
MEXICO CITY, May 1 (Reuters) - Mexico started to get a handle on the scope of its outbreak of a new and dangerous flu virus, with Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova saying he was heartened by a drop in hospital admissions of patients with flu symptoms.
U.S. officials said on Thursday they had sent tests to Mexico to allow scientists there to screen patients more quickly for the new strain of H1N1 swine flu, instead of sending tests to labs in Atlanta or Winnipeg in Canada and waiting to hear back.
Cordova said public hospitals that treat roughly half the country admitted 46 patients with severe flu symptoms on Thursday, down from 212 patients on April 20.
“This is encouraging,” Cordova said late on Thursday.
Cordova said tests in laboratories in the United States, Canada and Mexico have only confirmed 12 out of 176 deaths blamed on the H1N1 swine flu virus. “The number of confirmed fatalities will probably rise,” he told reporters.
He said that of 679 patient samples checked by the labs, 312 samples have tested positive for swine flu, and 300 of those cases are patients who have survived, some after treatment with antiviral drugs.
It may never be known precisely how many victims there were.
Since a woman who died in the southern state of Oaxaca on April 13 became the first confirmed swine flu death in Mexico, the government has counted more than 2,000 people hospitalized with similar symptoms.
But of the 176 people who have died of atypical respiratory diseases this month, nearly a third were buried before proper tests could be done to determine if they were infected, a ministry of health official told Reuters.
Much of Mexico will shut down for the next five days for the Cinco de Mayo holiday, conveniently coinciding with government advice for people to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.
Many government offices, car plants, factories and offices are letting employees stay home on a presidential order.
Some businesses plan to stay open, however, and Mexicans working for themselves said they could not afford to obey President Felipe Calderon’s order for non-essential parts of the economy to shut down from Friday until May 5.
Core industries like oil and mining will run as normal, as will hospitals and parts of the government handling the crisis, but companies like Ford (F.N) and Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) will shut plants and glassmaker Vitro (VITROA.MX) will halt most of its operations.
The measures taken to fight the flu outbreak will dent Mexico’s economy, which is already in recession, especially if the crisis drags on for weeks or months. HSBC estimates that every week of the crisis could chop 0.3 percent off Mexico’s annual growth rate. (Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Maggie Fox)