- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 22, 2009

Production of vaccine against the novel H1N1 flu virus is one-quarter lower than expected, creating shortfalls in the shots’ current availability across the U.S., top Obama administration officials told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said his state expected to have as many as 1 million doses on hand by Oct. 29, but will only receive from the federal government 156,000 doses by that date.

“That’s a rather significant difference in what they expected to receive in Arizona,” Mr. McCain said at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

There are 13 million H1N1-vaccine doses available nationwide, with the figure expected to reach 28 million to 30 million by the end of October - with the latter figure, according to panel chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman and ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine, “25 percent below initial governmental projections of 40 million vaccines that were expected to be available by that time.”

But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate panel that manufacturing delays, related to overly optimistic initial production estimates, have been corrected and that production will reach the 40 million figure by early November.

“We’re doing our best to continue to ramp up the production and push it out the door,” Mrs. Sebelius said.

The two Cabinet officials assured senators that all Americans who want the shot will eventually get one. However, a recent epidemic-spread study by two Purdue University scholars suggested it may already be too late to help most Americans.

“The frustration now is with delay, not shortage,” Ms. Napolitano said. “This is a new flu that we didn’t even know about a few months ago. But the vaccine will be pushed out to over 150,000 locations as quickly as humanly possible.”

“In the meantime, we have a web of plans under way so that business as usual proceeds in the United States and that we take care of our critical operations and crucial infrastructure as we work our way through this problem,” she said.

The Purdue study, on which The Washington Times reported Tuesday, predicted that “this wave will peak so early” - this week will see the greatest number of new infections - that the “vaccination campaign will likely not have a large effect.” The study, which also assumed earlier and more-widespread vaccination than has turned out to be the case, predicted that about 60 percent of the U.S. population will be infected and one-quarter will fall ill.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking individual H1N1 cases, popularly known as swine flu, because the virus had become so widespread as to make impossible the cumbersome process of sending every sample for confirmation and for distinguishing from other, seasonal forms of the flu. In addition, many people get infected and either show no symptoms or have just a minor illness, and so never see a doctor.

Instead, Mrs. Sebelius said, “we are testing cases of hospitalizations and death after,” though with an eye on “really, whether the virus has mutated.” As far as treatment is concerned, she said, distinguishing H1N1 cases is not valuable because “the flu is the flu is the flu is the flu.”

As far as the public-health response is concerned, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said closing schools to prevent the spread of the disease would be only a “last resort.”

On Tuesday, 88 schools out of 95,000 nationwide were closed because of the virus.

“It puts a strain on families,” Mr. Duncan said. “I worry about children who don’t eat - who rely on those school lunches - when schools are closed, that’s very difficult to do. And the social disruption of closing schools is huge, not to mention the loss of learning opportunities.”

“So our guidance has been very clear, that whenever possible, keep schools open, keep sick children at home, and let the majority of students attend school,” Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said the H1N1 strain has moved at alarming speed and taken an exceptionally high toll.

“We do know that at least 2,300 people have died in the United States from the H1N1 flu in the last few months,” Mr. Lieberman said. “It may well get ahead of our ability, the federal government’s ability, public health system ability, to prevent and respond to it.”

Asked by Mr. McCain whether Homeland Security officials are still screening foreign visitors before they enter the U.S., Ms. Napolitano said it was only the “standard screening” that has been recommended by the CDC.

“We’re not doing any different type of screening than we would normally, in part because this is not like an avian flu situation” where the virus mostly remained in Asia, Ms. Napolitano said. “The virus is already widespread through the continent.”

Mr. McCain asked, “So, it’s sort of already here?”

Responded Ms. Napolitano: “If we thought screening would help the public health situation in the United States, we would do something different. But everything we’ve been advised is that what we are doing is the most that can be expected, and anything else would have no practical impact on the public health of the American people.”

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