- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Budget cuts to be announced this week could affect the ability of state and local health departments to respond to the swine flu pandemic when the virus returns in earnest this fall, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Monday.

The governor plans to detail $470 million in proposed cuts Tuesday and the state health department will not be spared, despite the likelihood of an unusually active flu season.

“Our hope is that [the cuts] will be offset to a large degree by the federal government, and that working together, we can figure out a way to protect the public health even in a time when we see our revenues contracting,” said Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat.

Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has already received two federal grants worth more than $9 million combined to help plan its response to swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus.

The federal government is also paying for distribution of the swine flu vaccine, which is expected to be available to the public by mid-October, Health Secretary John M. Colmers said. He said the amount of money the state receives will be roughly based on population.

“Just like every other state agency, the health department is finding ways to do more with less,” said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for the governor. But Mr. Adamec said that even if budget trims affect public agencies’ response to the swine flu, “That doesn’t mean that it will in any way put anyone at risk or at any greater threat to H1N1 than we have been before.”

Mr. Colmers said the state still plans to make the swine flu vaccine available to every resident who wants it, a goal that some experts have called unrealistic. But when the department gets its initial supply, the goal will be to immunize the roughly 2 million Marylanders for whom vaccination is considered a high priority. Those include health care workers, pregnant women, children and people with compromised immune systems.

The state should ultimately have enough of the vaccine to offer it to the remainder of the population but it’s impossible to predict when supplies will reach that level, Mr. Colmers said.

Seven Marylanders have died of swine flu, including an elderly person from the Washington suburbs whose death was announced Monday. Six of the seven had serious, underlying medical conditions, health officials said.

Nationwide, the virus is thought to be responsible for at least 520 deaths.

The governor also announced Monday that the state is using a computer system that allows hospital emergency rooms to share real-time data on patients’ symptoms and suspicious patterns of illness. The tracking system will be used to keep tabs on the spread of swine flu. All 46 of Maryland’s acute-care hospitals are participating voluntarily in the system, making the state the first in the nation with 100 percent participation, Mr. O’Malley said.

Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Colmers urged Marylanders to schedule their seasonal flu shots promptly and to take the usual precautions when they exhibit symptoms.

“The message is, if you are sick, stay at home,” Mr. Colmers said. “We call that community mitigation. My mother called it common sense.”

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