WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., were reassured Wednesday by three Cabinet Secretaries that the H1N1 vaccine is safe – for children and adults – and that officials are doing all they can to ensure a much greater supply by early November to meet the demands of at risk citizens.
At a hearing to update the public on federal efforts to manage the spread of the H1N1 influenza, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sought to dispel widespread rumors and misperceptions about the safety of the vaccine. She said it has, in fact, been tested in clinical trials– albeit with greater focus and on a faster schedule than normal.
She also testified that despite an initial glitch in vaccine manufacturing that produced fewer doses than had been projected, production has since picked up and will meet targets by early next month.
“There is a significant amount of impatience, restlessness, and just plain anxiety out there about the government’s ability to deal with this public health crisis,” Lieberman said. “Thus far, the federal government in general has responded aggressively and as effectively as possible to the spread of the H1N1 virus. But I am concerned that the flu is spreading so rapidly, and with such intensity, that it may be getting ahead of the public health system’s ability to prevent and respond effectively to it.”
Collins said the hearing was important “because we must continue to assess the effectiveness of federal, state, and local efforts to respond to this pandemic, which appears to strike pregnant women, children, and young people with particular ferocity.” She noted the large spike in H1N1 cases at Maine’s Bates College, where flu cases jumped from six people to 160 in less than a week and then hit 245. She also voiced concerns about the availability of H1N1 vaccinations. “I am disturbed by CDC’s recent reports about the supply of vaccinations. CDC has been telling us since the summer that the federal government would have a sufficient supply of H1N1 vaccine to meet the demand; CDC also said that 40 million doses would be available by the end of October. It now appears production delays will result in 25 percent fewer doses than had been projected for this month.”
Approximately 28 million to 30 million doses of H1N1 vaccine will be available by the end of October. That figure is 25 percent below initial governmental projections of 40 million vaccines that were expected to be available by that time. Sebelius said that while the production yield of the vaccine initially fell short, the problem has been resolved, and 40 million doses of vaccine will be available in early November.
Sebelius also said unlike traditional seasonal flu that disproportionally affects the elderly, the H1N1 virus is impacting young people, with over 50 percent of hospitalizations and a quarter of all deaths occurring in people under the age of 25. A total of 93 percent of hospitalizations and 88 percent of all deaths are of people under the age of 65. Education Secretary Arne Duncan testified that elementary and secondary schools, as well as colleges, are all aware of the dangers posed to young people and are mobilizing to handle an overload of cases. Duncan testified that as a result of Department of Education guidance to close schools only as a last resort, far fewer have closed than did so last spring.
Several Senators questioned whether state and local public health systems would be able to manage the surge expected in hospitalizations from the H1N1 virus. Lieberman cited a Trust for America’s Health study that found 27 states could come close to or exceed available hospital beds for H1N1 patients, based on an assumption that 35 percent of the population will fall ill from the virus. Sebelius said that emergency planning to boost hospital surge capacity was underway and that Congress had appropriated $3 billion for this purpose over the past few years.
Lieberman also encouraged Secretary Sebelius to “over order” a still experimental intravenous anti-viral medication for the sickest patients. The medication is now in testing and has been approved on an emergency basis for 20 patients nationwide who were too ill to take tablet forms of anti-viral medication. Sebelius said she expected that an intravenous antiviral medication would be approved by the Food and Drug Administration soon.
In addition to Sebelius and Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and also testified on her department’s work as the overall incident manager to coordinate resources across the federal government and assist state and local governments in their response to the H1N1 virus. The Secretaries advised people to visit http://www.flu.gov for answers to commonly asked questions and for help distinguishing between facts and myths surrounding H1N1 and its vaccine.