White House Report Outlines Roles in Flu Pandemic Response
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 3, 2006 If a flu pandemic hit the United States, the Defense Department's top priority would be to protect the military's operational readiness so it can play a supporting role to the Homeland Security and State departments, as outlined in a national response plan released today by the White House.
The 227-page Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza provides a road map for marshaling the response, detailing roles and responsibilities for federal departments and agencies. It also sets expectations for state and local governments and nonfederal entities.
The plan includes more than 300 critical actions, many already initiated, to address the avian and pandemic flu threat, Frances Townsend, the president's homeland security adviser, told reporters today.
"I should make it clear from the outset that we do not know whether the bird virus we are seeing overseas will ever become a human virus, and we cannot predict whether a human virus will lead to a pandemic," Townsend said. She noted that the H5N1 virus has infected just 205 people to date, killing 113 of those infected. "However, it is possible that if the virus undergoes genetic changes, it could signal the start of a human epidemic," she said.
And in the event that it does, Townsend said it's critical that people understand and prepare for "the worst-case scenario."
Planning for such a scenario helps ensure a coordinated response to prevent or slow the infection's spread and helps "take the fear out of it so there's not chaos," she said.
Should a pandemic such as the H5N1 bird flu hit the United States, DoD would support the Department of Homeland Security in domestic preparedness and response, consistent with its U.S. national security mission, defense officials said. At the same time, the department would support the State Department in addressing the crisis internationally.
But the department's top priority would be to protect the military's operational readiness by taking care of military forces, civilian personnel, dependents and beneficiaries, according to Air Force Col. Richard Chavez, senior military adviser for civil support.
To ensure it's able to do that, DoD has established stockpiles of vaccines to keep servicemembers healthy and able to protect the country. This stockpile includes about 2.7 million doses of H5N1 avian influence vaccine and 2.4 million treatment courses of anti-virals.
The department is also developing systems for inpatient and outpatient disease surveillance at its institutions worldwide, according to Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary for health protection and readiness.
Protecting the force and maintaining essential functions and services would ensure the military is able to use its people and resources to support the overall response, Chavez said.
For example, military planes might be requested to transport critical resources, officials said. The department's medical surveillance and laboratory testing facilities could be tapped. Military forces might be asked to provide security as pharmaceuticals are transported and distributed. Military medical staffs might provide critical patient care. National Guard troops would likely help keep the peace.
Recognizing their potential role, U.S. European Command, U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Pacific Command have already sponsored pandemic influence response exercises, Chavez said.
In his preface to the plan, President Bush said a U.S. response to a flu pandemic will require the participation and coordination of all levels of government and segments and society.
"Our nation will face this global threat united in purpose and united in action in order to best protect our families, our communities, our nation and our world from the threat of pandemic influenza," he wrote.