WASHINGTON – A delay in the delivery of H1N1 flu vaccine has led some senators to worry that the pandemic will get worse before it gets better.
This and other swine flu fears were analyzed during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday,just one day after Rep. Greg Walden,R-Ore.,was the first member of Congress to be diagnosed with the disease.
Walden's office said his symptoms were not severe and that he is resting at his Washington home.
Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman,I-Conn.,and other senators grilled three cabinet secretaries – Health and Human Services' Kathleen Sebelius,Homeland Security's Janet Napolitano and Education's Arne Duncan – about what they are doing to thwart the spread of H1N1,also known as swine flu.
“This particular strain has moved with alarming speed at a time of the year when we don't specifically encounter the flu,” Lieberman said.
At least 2,300 people in the U.S. have died from HIN1 flu in the last two months,he said,calling the pandemic a “crisis.”
Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the percentage of all doctor visits due to flu symptoms has increased sharply from just a few months ago,but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
“In some ways,it's good news,” Sen. Claire McCaskill,D-Mo.,said. “People are more concerned.”
Sebelius said that,although many people are aware of the flu's risks,the alarming factor is that it is deadlier for younger children and adults. She said people age 25 and younger make up 90 percent of swine flu hospitalizations.
The CDC reported that 46 percent of the 1,400 adults hospitalized with swine flu had no other health risks.
Sebelius said there have been 86 confirmed pediatric deaths in the U.S. due to H1N1 since April – an equivalent to the number of pediatric deaths over the course of an entire flu season in previous years.
In just one week,Oct. 4-10,11 pediatric deaths were reported,she said.
“This is a very different picture than the seasonal flu,where 90 percent of deaths are those over 65,” she said. “But we are better prepared to deal with the current challenge than ever before in history.”
Sebelius lauded the quick turnaround in developing an H1N1 vaccination,but manufacturing delays have caused a 25 percent drop in the amount of vaccine the government projected would be available by late October. Only 28 million to 30 million doses are available,compared to the 40 million that were expected.
Vaccines should reach expected levels by early November,Sebelius said.
Sen. Susan Collins,R-Maine,referred to a recent Purdue University study that said the greatest number of infections will occur this week,while people are awaiting the vaccine.
“We would love to have much more available today. No doubt about it,” Sebelius said in response.
Only one of the five vaccine manufacturers is based in the U.S.,which could account for delays,Lieberman said.
“Some good news is the virus has not changed significantly since April,” Sebelius said. “The vaccine is working.”
She added that more people are also taking advantage of the seasonal flu shot earlier than is typical,causing some areas of the country to have shortages.
In another sign of heightened awareness,Sebelius said the department's flu.gov Web site is receiving 5 million hits per week.
In response to a question from Lieberman,Sebelius said the flu vaccine should not be used as a substitute for the H1N1 vaccine. If there had been more time,Sebelius said the two flu shots would have been combined into one.
Lieberman also questioned the cabinet official about what can be expected in the future,saying “We're facing an enemy whose movement is unpredictable.”
Sebelius agreed: “The appropriate term is ‘unpredictable.' We're not seeing any massive surges in areas with outbreaks in the spring.”
She said she didn't know if those who have contracted H1N1 once can contract it again.
Though most questions were directed at Sebelius,Collins questioned Napolitano on emergency preparedness. Collins said Bowdoin College,in her home state of Maine,reported an increase from six H1N1 flu cases to 245 in little more than a week's time.
Napolitano said training programs have prepared employees in vital sectors to continue work during a pandemic.
“All agencies and departments were asked to update their existing pandemic plans to ensure the continuation of mission-essential functions,” Napolitano said in written testimony.
She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has worked with state emergency preparedness teams.
Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.,questioned Duncan about the wisdom of closing schools when many children become ill.
Duncan said students should stay home when they are sick,but schools will do their best to remain open despite flu outbreaks.
“Closing schools is the absolute last resort,” Duncan said. “We are doing everything we can … to make it clear we want students to attend school.”