We were greeted this morning by the news that President Obama had declared a national emergency in connection with the H1N1 virus:
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.
Where there are some who are accusing the White House of hysteria and fear-mongering, and while I’m sure we’ll see many on the extreme right saying that this is evidence of some nefarious plot, the truth is somewhat a little different:
[I]t’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.
Of course, given some of what we’ve already seen, it’s hard to believe that the reactions could get any more hysterical than they’ve already gotten given the fact that, when you look at the numbers so far, H1N1 is far less contagious, and far less virulent than the worst-case scenarios we were hearing about in the summer were predicting.
It’s probably prudent for people in high risk groups to get vaccinated, but while I did get the seasonal flu vaccine I’m probably going to end up skipping this one unless there’s evidence that this is becoming a bigger deal than it appears to be right now.