HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday held two press conferences and briefed congressional lawmakers on the recent public health emergency involving swine flu, also known as the "2009 H1N1 influenza virus," CQ HealthBeat reports (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 4/29).
Sebelius' efforts came as the World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its global pandemic alert level from four to five, indicating that the virus has resulted in public health emergencies in at least two countries in one region of the world. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said, "All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparation plans" and be on "high alert" for cases of swine flu (McKay/Simon, Wall Street Journal, 4/30).
During one of Sebelius' press conferences, she reminded attendees that the U.S. has a stockpile of 50 million courses of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, which could help prevent a potential pandemic. She said, "These drugs are effective in treating patients who have acquired the 2009 H1N1 flu virus," adding, "However, the flu is always serious. And we know that each year millions of Americans are infected with influenza. Two hundred thousand Americans on average are hospitalized every year, and tens of thousands die from influenza and complications." Sebelius said, "While we still don't know what this virus will do, we expect to see more cases, more hospitalizations, and unfortunately, we're likely to see additional deaths from the outbreak," adding, "We are determined to fight this outbreak and to do everything we can to protect the health of every American" (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 4/29).
However, U.S. officials do not plan to close the border to Mexico, as it would not stop the spread of the virus while at the same time possibly damaging the economy, according to WHO Deputy Director General Keiji Fukuda, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, President Obama and flu experts (McNeil, New York Times, 4/30).
In addition to the press conferences, CDC and HHS officials have been using Web sites, including Twitter and YouTube, to provide people with information about the swine flu emergency (Vargas, Washington Post, 4/30).
Meanwhile, Obama on Wednesday during a press conference called on Congress to authorize an additional $1.5 billion to "support our ability to monitor and track this virus" and to build the nation's stockpile of antiviral drugs. Obama said that the public health emergency is "cause for deep concern but not panic." However, he said, people should take precautions, including washing hands, and businesses should start to "think about contingency plans" if they are forced to close because of swine flu (Grady, New York Times, 4/30).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday said that Congress will add the $1.5 billion to the supplemental war appropriations bill (Armstrong, CQ Today, 4/29). Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that Obama's request might be increased by lawmakers looking to prepare for future public health emergencies (Gruenwald, CongressDaily, 4/29).
States' Efforts Affected by Recession
Recent funding cuts to departments and services in response to the current economic recession, including reductions of hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of workers from state and local health departments, could have an impact on state and local efforts to respond to the swine flu emergency, the New York Times reports. To handle the emergency, some health departments have shifted workers to focus on swine flu prevention and education efforts. However, some people are questioning how these departments would be able to handle a pandemic with limited resources.
Robert Pestronk, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, "I'm very concerned," adding, "Local health departments are barely staffed to do the work they do on a day-to-day basis. A large increase in workload will mean that much of the other work that is being done now won't be done. And depending on the scale of an epidemic, capacity may be exceeded." NACCHO estimates that local health departments last year lost about $300 million in funding and 7,000 workers. Meanwhile, state public health agencies between July 2008 and January lost an additional 1,500 workers and anticipate an additional 2,600 job cuts in the coming fiscal year, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Acting CDC Administrator Richard Besser said, "We hear about tens of thousands of state public health workers who are going to be losing their jobs because of state budgets," adding, "It is very important that we look at that resource because this outbreak was identified because of a lot of work going on around preparedness" (Sack, New York Times, 4/30)
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday reported on the WHO announcement. The segment includes comments from Obama, Chan and several flu experts (Knox, "Morning Edition," NPR, 4/30). "Morning Edition" also examined U.S. government efforts to inform the public about the flu using the Internet. The segment includes comments from Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of for Nielsen Online's digital strategy services and Andrew Wilson, who heads the new media Web division of HHS (Noguchi, "Morning Edition," NPR, 4/30).