Report: Agencies not prepared for second wave of swine flu

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The federal government isn't prepared for a potential outbreak of swine flu this fall, a Government Accountability Office report released to Congress concluded Wednesday.

Furthermore, said the GAO, Congress' nonpartisan investigative arm, federal agencies haven't addressed nearly half of the 24 recommendations it made last month.

William Coor, the deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, disputed the findings.

"Given the speed at which the virus has spread we felt our work and coordination has been outstanding," he said. However, Jane Holl Lute, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security, acknowledged that, "We still have work to do."

The GAO agreed, saying that if a severe outbreak struck:

  • Federal, state and local governments would have trouble coordinating with one another.
  • The number of beds and medical supplies would be insufficient, and plans to protect federal workers aren't adequate.

Health officials worldwide acknowledge that the virus has reached pandemic proportions and could strike more severely in the fall. In the U.S., more than 43,000 people have contracted the virus, and so far, 302 have died.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., called the report "startling" after it was presented to the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday.

The committee voted unanimously to urge the federal departments to respond to the GAO's recommendations within three months.

"Based on our survey, progress seems to be limited," said Bernice Steinhardt, the GAO's director of strategic issues. The rosy outlook of the agencies could be because they still haven't tested what they'd do in a severe outbreak, she added.

Lute listed the steps that her agency has taken to prepare, including reaching out to Native American tribal governments and drafting a response plan.

Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary William Coor also defended his department's actions.

Coor added that HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the next few weeks will give directions to state and local governments on how to deal with a big outbreak.

Swine flu, or H1N1, emerged in April in the U.S., and by June, the World Health Organization said it had grown to pandemic proportions. The WHO said it's killed at least 816 people worldwide. The Southern Hemisphere is now in its regular flu season, and swine flu there has been particularly deadly.

Coor said a vaccine won't be ready for several more months, after trials are finished. He also said that federal and state governments have stockpiled 75 million to 100 million antiviral treatments, a number he called "sufficient."

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley told the committee the federal government communicated poorly with federal workers earlier this year.

For example, federal employees were forbidden from wearing face masks to avoid getting the virus unless they were within six feet of a person who seemed likely to have swine flu.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., wasn't happy with the report.

"Given this country's recent experience with disasters, it is hard to believe that there are those who underestimate the importance of plans and drills," he said. "Our children are taught in school what to do in a fire drill. They are not taught to wait until a fire starts, yell instructions and hope everyone makes it to the exit."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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