NEWS

Swine Flu Shows Importance of Preparedness

By Matthew Harwood

Public health officials have generally approved of the Obama administration's response to the swine flu outbreak. Many cite the Bush administration's investment in pandemic planning as a key behind the quick response.

According to The New York Times:

Other public health experts also endorsed the administration’s response to the outbreak that emerged from Mexico. They gave much of the credit to President Bush, whose administration did extensive planning for such an emergency.

“We’re seeing a payoff of the original investment made in pandemic preparedness by the Bush administration,” said Jeffrey W. Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health. The term pandemic refers to a widespread outbreak of an infectious disease.

National Public Radio concurred:

Much of the credit goes to [Michael] Leavitt [former secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS)] and the Bush administration for its multibillion-dollar pandemic planning effort started in 2005, which included pandemic summit meetings in each of the 50 states. But Jeff Levi of Trust for America's Health, a public health advocacy organization, says the Obama administration also deserves high marks for selecting the right career people to put in charge on an acting basis.

For example, he says, it's more than luck that put Richard Besser temporarily at the helm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besser had previously headed the agency's emergency preparedness programs.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who is leading the U.S. response, said the government is taking no chances and treating the situation as if a pandemic will occur.

"We are proceeding as if we are preparatory to a full pandemic," Napolitano said. "We don't know that a pandemic actually will occur, but because we want to make sure that we have equipment where it needs to be, people where they need to be and, most important, information shared at all levels."

But The Washington Post reminds readers that the plan for pandemic preparedness developed during the Bush administration has never been tested.

The Post also spoke with former officials who worry that the response could be bungled due to key vacancies in agencies dealing with public health and emergency response.

Via the Post:

The president has yet to fill 15 top positions at the health department or name a full-time director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and five more nominations -- including that of former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be HHS Secretary -- are awaiting confirmation by the Senate, officials at the department said.

The top post at the CDC remains open but is being filled by an acting director. And at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is leading the federal government's response to the swine flu outbreak, the functions of nearly 20 senior-level posts are being temporarily performed by career civil service employees.

The Post also cites Leavitt, who argues that the government's response to swine flu must come out of HHS and not DHS.

"Without a Secretary of HHS, this will begin to be managed in ways that will be inconsistent with its nature," he told the Post in an interview Monday. "If you were managing this out of Commerce, it would all be about trade. If it were Treasury, it would all be about the flow of money."

The Obama administration has repeatedly said publicly that it believes key vacancies have not and will not hinder the government's response to the swine flu outbreak.

As of this morning, 152 people have died due to swine flu—all in Mexico. The number of confirmed infections in the United States has increased to 50, while other cases have been reported in Australia, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Spain and Scotland.

It is difficult to track where the infection has spread because most countries do not have adequate detection technology. The CDC, however, began sending out detection kits worldwide yesterday to increase the ability of countries to confirm infections, reports the Times. It's suspected that as the kits are used, the number of confirmed cases will rise sharply.

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