Obama Declares H1N1 Influenza National Emergency
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2009 President Barack Obama signed a national emergency declaration on H1N1 influenza over the weekend to accommodate American health care facilities’ ability to address the pandemic.
“By rapidly identifying the virus, implementing public heath measures, providing guidance for health professionals and the general public, and developing an effective vaccine, we have take proactive steps to reduce the impact of the pandemic and protect the health of our citizens,” the president said in his proclamation Oct. 24.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has twice declared a public health emergency due to the H1N1 strain. The first came July 24, and the most recent was Oct. 1.
“As a nation, we have prepared at all levels of government, and as individuals and communities, taking unprecedented steps to counter the emerging pandemic,” Obama said. “Nevertheless, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic continues to evolve. In recognition of the continuing progression of the pandemic, and in further preparation as a nation, we are taking additional steps to facilitate our response.”
The declaration grants authority to the Department of Health and Human Services to waive legal requirements and gives medical facilities the ability to set up alternate care sites, modify patient triage protocols, alter patient transfer procedures and other actions to employ disaster operations and relief, Pentagon spokeswoman Rene White said.
Temporary waivers are petitioned to HHS by the individual medical facilities under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act. Although the president declared the pandemic a national emergency, waivers still require specific requests to HHS, and some state laws may need to be addressed, according to a White House statement released yesterday.
“The H1N1 [pandemic] is moving rapidly,” White said. “By the time regions or health care systems recognize they are becoming overburdened, they need to implement disaster plans quickly. Adding a potential delay while waiting for a national emergency declaration is not in the best interest of the public, particularly if this step can be done proactively, as we are doing here.”
The most recent examples of a U.S. president granting the Section 1135 waivers was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008, the North Dakota flooding in March and as a protocol for January’s presidential inauguration.
Although thousands of U.S. servicemembers were called to duty in these events, the Defense Department does not anticipate a major call up of forces due to the H1N1 , White said. However, the department is prepared to respond if needed.
“At this time, the Defense Department is evaluating the impacts the president’s declaration has on [Defense Department] H1N1 operations,” she said. “One of our first priorities right now continues to be vaccine availability and distribution – first protecting uniformed personnel, deployed [personnel], training sites, ships afloat and submarines, as well as our health care personnel.”