Administration's plan doesn't alleviate concerns

Is the avian flu a real threat? If I don’t eat meat, will I be safe? Should I stock up on bottled water, duct tape and plastic sheeting?

Not sure what to expect, Americans are asking these questions — wondering what will happen when this biological threat hits our shores.

Regardless of how the administration answers these questions, one thing is certain: The threat of an influenza pandemic is real. Experts believe such viruses can mutate and migrate from one country to another shrouded in clouds of uncertainty. In our own nation, the arrival of such a pandemic could cripple our nation’s medical infrastructure, hamper local responders and overwhelm limited supplies of vaccines and antiviral medication.

While the president recently unveiled a national strategy for pandemic influenza, I remain concerned that we are not prepared for a pandemic threat. Pushing to state and local authorities the burden of responding to a threat without providing them guidance and assistance for preparing for such a threat is not a winning strategy. Indeed, it sounds very similar to the strategy the administration has in place for responding to natural disasters. Three hurricanes and billions of dollars later, almost everyone agrees that the approach was flawed and badly executed.

The lack of leadership surrounding Hurricane Katrina shows that the federal government can do better than throw money at a problem and hope that a hands-off approach to disaster preparedness works. The president’s plan for the federal government to coordinate national efforts on a pandemic threat sounds good in theory, but if political cronies are leading the charge, our nation’s security is in jeopardy.

Likewise, providing funds to agencies that will have a role in preparation or response will only work if there is a practical plan detailing how funding will be used and who will be in charge. In any event, the federal government must be actively involved to help prepare local and state officials for dealing with a crisis, not simply mandate that they be ready. Our communities are very capable, but they need qualified leadership and guidance from the federal government on how to handle a threat that will know no borders.

Specifically, we need a strategy that includes a clear chain of command to identify the role of local and state medical officials and emergency responders, who will be the first on the scene of any pandemic outbreak. Emergency-room doctors around the country admit that they are stretched thin. Hospitals around the country are functioning on finite resources and have publicly stated that a bad case of seasonal flu or any incident out of the ordinary could shut down their care system in total.

Our federal government cannot simply acknowledge that our health system is vulnerable without acting on it. The president’s strategy includes $500 million for state and local health preparedness. This amount is insulting to our communities, especially from an administration that has slashed our nation’s healthcare programs and, just this past week, is pushing through the House a $12 billion cut in Medicaid access and benefits to the poor as part of budget reconciliation.

Our nation needs a meaningful program that lays out roles and responsibilities for federal agencies, private healthcare entities, state and local authorities, and first responders, among others. As we experienced with the hurricanes, while one region may be directly hit by a threat or disaster, the entire nation feels the aftereffects and response help may be necessary from all corners of the United States.

In addition to having well-coordinated partners, the operational functions of health preparedness must also be top-notch. This requires an investment in a biosurveillance system at home to detect emerging threats and medical surveillance abroad to mitigate against health risks in developing nations and those with little infrastructure to detect and respond alone.

Most important, we must speak clearly to Americans. The government must explain what a pandemic threat is and how citizens can prepare for and respond to the threat. Citizen preparedness is a critical part of our efforts against the pandemic threat, especially when one considers that predictions are more than half a million Americans could die from a pandemic flu. Two million more could end up hospitalized — that is, if our hospital systems do not crumble under the patient surge.

Back home in Mississippi, my constituents are asking what I think of the avian flu. Should they be worried? What should they do? Mississippi farmers, who account for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s poultry supply, are not sure what to expect and are left watching on television the scenes in Asia and Europe of farmers destroying their livelihoods because of the threat. They deserve to know more about what options they have and just how much of a potential economic threat the avian flu might be to our communities.

Honest communication, assistance and coordination are what we need to prepare our communities. There have been enough “national” strategies and plans that do not help our states, cities, and towns mitigate risks and identify their needs. For our nation’s health and welfare, we need an operational plan for providing our state and locals the tools they need to prepare and respond to pandemic influenza. We need a federal government that will not pass the buck when our communities become overwhelmed with a global epidemic and need a helping hand.

Thompson is ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.