Tuesday, October 27, 2009

obama declares h1n1 a national emergency

NYTimes | President Obama has declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency, allowing hospitals and local governments to speedily set up alternate sites for treatment and triage procedures if needed to handle any surge of patients, the White House said on Saturday.

The declaration came as thousands of people lined up in cities across the country to receive vaccinations, and as federal officials acknowledged that their ambitious vaccination program has gotten off to a slow start. Only 16 million doses of the vaccine were available now, and about 30 million were expected by the end of the month. Some states have requested 10 times the amount they have been allotted.

Flu activity — virtually all of it the swine flu — is now widespread in 46 states, a level that federal officials say equals the peak of a typical winter flu season. Millions of people in the United States have had swine flu, known as H1N1, either in the first wave in the spring or the current wave.

Although there has been no exact count, officials said the H1N1 virus has killed more than 1,000 Americans and hospitalized over 20,000. The emergency declaration, which Mr. Obama signed Friday night, has to do only with hospital treatment, not with the vaccine. Government officials emphasized that Mr. Obama’s declaration was largely an administrative move that did not signify any unanticipated worsening of the outbreak of the H1N1 flu nationwide. Nor, they said, did it have anything to do with the reports of vaccine shortages.

“This is not a response to any new developments,” said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman. “It’s an important tool in our kit going forward.”

Mr. Obama’s declaration was necessary to empower Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to issue waivers that allow hospitals in danger of being overwhelmed with swine flu patients to execute disaster operation plans that include transferring patients off-site to satellite facilities or other hospitals.