Pandemic flu, other public health crises: U.S. has made progress in preparedness

The recent outbreak of human swine flu, also known as H1N1, has caused considerable worldwide concern. While the potential of a pandemic flu is very serious, the swine flu outbreak also highlighted the tremendous progress that our nation has made in planning and responding to a pandemic flu and other threats to public health.

Federal, state, and local officials took the H1N1 threat seriously and responded quickly and appropriately. This is in stark contrast to two years ago when a Mexican citizen who was infected with a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis was able to cross the U.S. border between Mexico more than 20 times even after border security officers had been notified of the potential risks. This case not only illustrated vulnerabilities within our nation’s border screening systems but also exposed weaknesses in our interagency communications. Specifically, they called into question the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take coordinated, effective action when they learn about individuals who present public health threats.  

While I have advocated for more effective methods to detect H1N1 at the border, such as stepped-up medical presence and the use of technology to assist Customs and Border Patrol officers, the recent outbreak does demonstrate the tremendous preparation and response advancements that our nation has made in the past couple of years. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) acted quickly to declare the potential pandemic flu as a Public Health Emergency. This not only allowed for the release of federal resources to support state and local preparedness and response efforts, but also gave agencies greater flexibility to put rapid measures in place should the flu virus become more prevalent. It also placed the secretary of Homeland Security in charge of the overall federal government’s response.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat of the CDC recently told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that our nation’s ability to respond to a pandemic outbreak has grown by “leaps and bounds” as a result of the nearly $7 billion that Congress has appropriated over the past several years. This funding has been used for stockpiling antiviral drugs for the treatment of more than 50 million Americans, licensing a pre-pandemic influenza vaccine, developing rapid diagnostics, and completing the sequencing of the entire genetic blueprints of 2,250 human and avian influenza viruses. This investment also established the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) at HHS.

Strengthening our nation’s preparedness for a pandemic flu has been a priority of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which has held 14 hearings on pandemic flu and bioterrorism preparedness that helped remedy past weaknesses in federal, state and local planning and coordination. In 2008, for example, the committee held a hearing on the mass medical care that would be needed in the response to a pandemic flu or the detonation of a terrorist’s nuclear device. The committee also exposed the weaknesses in coordination between DHS and the CDC in the TB case, gaps that now have been largely filled. HSGAC also held a hearing on HHS’s development and procurement of the necessary vaccines, drugs, and countermeasures for public health emergencies just like H1N1.

The H1N1 flu outbreak serves as a reminder of the dangers and complexities that a pandemic outbreak and other public health emergencies present. We can learn many lessons from this experience including how to continue safeguarding our borders and the need to provide timely and accurate information to the public in emergencies. It also demonstrates a much-improved ability of local first responders, medical personnel and the federal government to respond should the need arise again.

Collins is ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.