Obama Declares Swine Flu Emergency
President Obama has declared that the swine flu, which is much less prevalent and deadly than the ordinary influenza virus, is an “epidemic” and a “national emergency.” Silly as it sounds, it was the right call.
President Obama has declared H1N1 swine flu a national emergency, clearing the way for his health chief to give hospitals wider leeway in how they handle a possible surge of new patients, administration officials said Saturday. The president granted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the power to lift some federal regulations for medical providers, including allowing hospitals to set up off-site facilities to increase the number of available beds and protect patients who are not infected.
Obama said in the declaration that the “rapid increase in illness . . . may overburden health-care resources.” White House officials played down the dramatic language, saying the president’s action did not stem from a new assessment of the dangers the flu poses to the public. Instead, officials said the action provides greater flexibility for hospitals that may face a surge of new patients as the virus sweeps through their communities. The declaration allows Sebelius to waive certain requirements under Medicaire and Medicaid, privacy rules and other regulations.
“The H1N1 is moving rapidly, as expected,” White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Saturday. “By the time regions or health-care systems recognize they are becoming overburdened, they need to implement disaster plans quickly.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Friday that the flu was spreading widely in at least 46 states and had already caused the hospitalization of at least 20,000 Americans. More than 1,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus and more than 2,400 additional deaths were probably associated with it, officials said.
The department first declared a public health emergency in April; Ms. Sebelius renewed it on Tuesday. But the separate presidential declaration was required to waive federal laws put in place to protect patients’ privacy and to ensure that they are not discriminated against based on their source of payment for care, including Medicare, Medicaid and the states’ Children’s Health Insurance Program.
As a practical matter, officials said, the waiver could allow a hospital to set up a make-shift satellite facility for swine flu patients in a local armory or other suitably spacious location, or at another hospital, to segregate such cases for treatment. Under federal law, if the patients are sent off site without a waiver, the hospital could be refused reimbursement for care as a sanction.
Some are terming this “fear-mongering” and hysteria. And it’s true that this is neither “epidemic” nor an “emergency” in any ordinary senses of those words. But these are the magic words the president has to invoke in order to bypass the bureaucratic rules preventing faster dissemination of the vaccine. This is something I would like to see changed because the headlines will in fact create some hysterical reactions. But it’s the system Obama has to work within for now.
Others are questioning why, if this is such a big deal, the Obama girls haven’t been vaccinated. But the Obama girls aren’t in the high risk categories that would permit them to get the vaccine right now. My 9-month-old is in that category but our pediatrician doesn’t yet have a supply.
In Fairfax County, Va., officials had planned to have swine flu clinics at 10 different locations on Saturday. But the county did not receive the number of doses it requested, and was forced to offer the vaccinations only at the government building. People began lining up with camping gear the night before to get vaccinations. Merni Fitzgerald, Fairfax’s public affairs director, said officials were aiming to administer 12,000 doses of the vaccine to those most at risk for serious complications from the H1N1 virus, mainly pregnant women and children 6 to 36 months. But that did not stop some other high-risk patients. “I lied and told the doctors I was pregnant,” said Theresa Caffey of Centreville, who has multiple sclerosis and nurses her 11-week-old son, Joshua. “I’m religious. I don’t lie. But it’s not about me. It’s for my son. It’s safer for him if I have the antibodies.”
People would be going crazy if the Obama girls were jumping the line ahead of the very small children and pregnant women who have been deemed the most critical to inoculate early.
Photo credit: Paul Sancya/AP.