|WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Wednesday commended the federal response to the swine flu outbreak but warned of the outbreak’s unpredictability and the need for continued vigilance, particularly at the border.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified at the hearing, entitled “Swine Flu: Coordinating the Federal Response,” as did Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat, Deputy Director for Science and Public Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The federal response to the swine flu outbreak has been strong and reassuring,” Lieberman said. “But we are in the midst of a grave public health emergency whose course is not clear. We must remain on alert, take all possible preventative actions, and prepare for an escalation of the outbreak.”
Collins said: “As the number of confirmed cases continues to increase, American families have the right to know that their federal government is doing everything possible to combat this potential pandemic. To date, it appears that our federal officials have taken the threat seriously and responded appropriately. As Secretary Napolitano and Rear Admiral Schuchat testified at today’s hearing, our nation’s ability to respond to this outbreak has grown by leaps and bounds as a result of significant investments that Congress has made. But to help address the threat, I strongly advocate for more effective, enhanced methods to detect swine flu at the border, such as a stepped up medical presence and the use of technology to assist CBP officers.”
Unlike other crises the nation has faced, pandemic flu is a threat that has been anticipated and planned for. Almost $7 billion has been appropriated for federal pandemic preparedness activities. This funding has been used for stockpiling antiviral drugs for the treatment of more than 50 million Americans, expand domestic vaccine production capacity, and support programs to control the global spread of pandemic influenza outbreaks.
In the early 1990s, the CDC developed a national emerging infectious diseases strategy and President Clinton issued a presidential directive for federal agencies to begin a coordinated national response to the growing threat of infectious diseases.
In 2006, the Homeland Security Council published a National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan, setting out a detailed roadmap for what to do in a crisis. States, supported by grants from DHS and HHS, have also developed plans for addressing pandemic flu.
Several Senators raised the possibility of closing the border with Mexico, which has suffered the most from the swine flu outbreak with 2,000 hospitalizations and about 150 reported deaths.
Both Napolitano and Schuchat said that they saw no reason to close the border, since the virus has already infected 66 Americans. Customs and Border Protection officials are currently observing and questioning travelers crossing the border about their exposure to the disease and symptoms they may be experiencing.
“Going forward, there is no circumstance under which I think border closing would have value,” Schuchat said.
Both the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have roles to play in responding to the viral outbreak. Under the Homeland Security Act, Homeland Security Presidential Directives 5 and 21, and the National Response Framework, the Secretary of Homeland Security serves as the overall incident manager and coordinates resources across the federal government in support of the response to the threat, while HHS, including CDC, leads the Federal public health and medical response.