Oversight panel: Government was slow on H1N1 threat

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The federal government's preparedness for the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic that's claimed far more than 1,000 lives nationwide was inadequate and incomplete, a congressional subcommittee said Tuesday.

Both Democratic and Republican members of the subcommittee stopped short of blaming President Barack Obama's administration, but they made it clear that they expect improved handling of the pandemic in the near future. The House of Representatives panel was the Homeland Security subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity & Science and Technology.

The panel's hearing came in the wake of Obama declaring last Friday that the swine flu outbreak is a national emergency, a procedural move that allows health care providers to speed treatment.

"Our early warning and detection systems were inadequate," said Rep. Yvette Clark, D-N.Y., the subcommittee's chairwoman. "Some key planning activities were incomplete; we didn't have a good approach to provide health care under pandemic conditions; and levels of preparedness for pandemic influenza were unclear. Unfortunately, our failure to develop these systems, activities and policies cost us during the response."

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency testified that federal agencies are aggressively monitoring and responding to an illness that's being heavily reported in 46 states.

However, the agency representatives acknowledged that the federal government had to adjust its response because it had been preparing since 2005 to combat avian, or bird, flu, not the newer H1N1 strain.

"We learned this past spring that much of what actually occurred in the H1N1 outbreak did not align with prior avian flu planning," the agency representatives said collectively in written testimony. "Since the spring, DHS has led interagency efforts to develop H1N1-specific preparedness and response planning activities."

Obama's declaration gave Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius temporary power to grant waivers that expedite moves such as establishing off-site emergency rooms to treat swine flu victims away from other patients.

White House officials called Obama's declaration a preemptive move to make sure that health officials have everything they need to swiftly battle the outbreak.

But some lawmakers have questioned Washington's overall response -- from the White House to Congress to the federal agencies -- given the rapid spread of the illness and a shortage of H1N1 vaccine.

Administration officials said in July that companies could make 80 million to 120 million doses of the vaccine by mid-October. But only 16.5 million doses have become available so far.

"There are now very unsettling reports of growing vaccine shortages," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said during a hearing last week. "We're asking ourselves if enough vaccine will be produced in time for all who will need it as we continue to experience the spread of H1N1 flu."

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said Tuesday that the situation is improving, with the number of available vaccine doses increasing from 14 million last week to 22 million this week.

"We're beginning to get significant increases in availability," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC's director.

However, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that the increased H1N1 vaccine supply shouldn't deter manufacturers from seeking an alternative to the reliable but slow-to-produce egg-based vaccines.

"We are still hobbled by the limitations of egg-based vaccine productions," he said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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