- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 10, 2005

Bush administration officials yesterday tested federal preparedness for a lethal flu outbreak in the United States, concluding after a four-hour drill at the White House that the government is in need of a more “comprehensive plan.”

“We need to have a surveillance plan that allows us to identify when an incident has occurred in the world,” Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt told reporters after the test. “The sooner we know, the more quickly and more adequately we can respond.”

The goal of the drill was to “push federal resources to the breaking point and to ensure that we’re prepared, that we identify gaps and then we plan to fill them. We accomplished that this morning,” White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend said.

Several Cabinet secretaries participated in the drill, but President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did not. Mr. Bush spent part of the morning on a bicycle ride in suburban Maryland, and although Mr. Cheney was in his White House office yesterday morning, he did not attend.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Mr. Bush would be briefed in detail but didn’t need to take part because his role in the effort is already well-defined.

“The president’s been focused on this for years,” he said. “It is impossible to have the kind of candor and open discussion and a useful preparedness exercise with the president and/or the vice president in the room.”

Fears of a pandemic have increased in recent months as a virus infecting millions of birds has spread throughout Asia and parts of Europe. Though the virus has not appeared in the United States and it has not begun to spread from person to person, officials worry the bird flu eventually could mutate and spread easily among humans.

“This is not something that we’re saying is around the corner tomorrow, but it is something we have an opportunity to get ahead of,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said after the drill.

Mr. Leavitt, noting that the United States lacks the capacity to manufacture enough vaccine to protect everyone, stressed the need for state and local governments to prepare on their own.

“This is a time for us to be informing but not inflaming. It’s a time for us to inspire preparation but not panic,” said Mr. Leavitt, who intends to travel to all 50 states to discuss preparedness plans with public health officials.

The administration is working under the worst-case assumption that as many as 90 million Americans would become sick and 2 million would die during a worldwide flu pandemic.

To prepare, it has been coordinating with Asian nations on methods for early identification of any outbreak, working with the vaccine manufacturing industry on ways to speed vaccine production and stockpiling more Tamiflu, which can reduce the severity of the disease if taken early enough.

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