The White House has declared the 20009 H1N1 swine flu a "national emergency," a designation that will make it easier for medical facilities to handle a recent surge of patients infected with the potentially deadly virus.
Upping the official status of the swine flu will allow medical facilities to waive certain standard requirements for Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health insurance programs, on a case-by-case basis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Friday that the swine flu has become widespread in 46 U.S. states, a level comparable to the peak of ordinary flu seasons but far earlier and with more waves of infection expected.
Mr. Obama signed the proclamation designating the flu a national emergency late Friday and formally notified Congress Saturday.
"The foundation of our national approach to the H1N1 flu has been preparedness at all levels — personal, business, and government — and this proclamation helps that effort by advancing our overall response capability," said President Obama in a statement released by the White House Saturday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius initially declared the swine flu a "public health emergency" in April, and renewed the declaration in July and again Oct. 1.
Because of swine flu production delays, the government has backed off initial, optimistic estimates that as many as 120 million vaccine doses would be available by mid-October. As of Wednesday, only 11 million doses had been shipped to health departments, doctors' offices and other providers across the country, the CDC said.
Federal health officials add that the swine flu is more widespread now than it ever has been, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths so far in the United States. About 100 pediatric swine flu deaths have been reported.
The only states without widespread flu are Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and South Carolina, the agency said.
"As a Nation, we have prepared at all levels of government, and as individuals and communities, taking unprecedented steps to counter the emerging pandemic," said Mr. Obama in a White House statement. "Nevertheless, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic continues to evolve."
The swine flu isn't confined to U.S. borders. The World Health Organization on Friday reported more than 414,000 laboratory confirmed cases of H1N1 worldwide, with nearly 5,000 deaths.