(CNSNews.com) – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently announced that an additional $350 million is available to help states and territories prepare for the 2009 flu season – including swine flu, which Sebelius described as “no more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
“With flu season around the corner, we must remain vigilant and do all we can to prepare our nation and protect public health,” said Sebelius. “These grants will give states valuable resources to step up their flu preparedness efforts.”
The grants were funded by a supplemental appropriations bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama on June 24, 2009.
The money will be distributed nationwide, as follows: A total of $260 million in Public Health Emergency Response Grants will go to state public health departments for vaccination campaigns and surveillance; and $90 million in Hospital Preparedness grants will help hospitals deal with a surge in patients.
Sebelius said grant applications must be submitted soon, since HHS plans to allocate the money by July 31. She admitted it’s a “pretty rapid turnaround.”
Sebelius said swine flu – also known as novel H1N1 virus – is spreading. “What we’re seeing in the southern hemisphere -- which is where our surveillance teams are really watching very closely -- it, the flu, has not gotten more lethal. That’s the good news,” she said in a July 10 telephone briefing.
“We’re still learning about what’s happening, but at least to date it appears that while a lot of people may get the H1N1 virus, it doesn’t appear to be significantly more lethal than the seasonal flu is.” But that could change, she told a conference last week:
"What we need to assume is that it will come back in a much more severe form," Sebelius told a conference at the National Institutes of Health on July 9.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have 33,902 cases of swine flu in the United States, resulting in 170 deaths, as of July 2.
However, Sebelius said the actual number is undoubtedly much higher, since many cases go unreported. “[T]here are lots and lots and lots of people who have the flu who did not ever seek to have their flu virus confirmed with the testing kit,” she noted.
The CDC estimates that about a million people have contracted swine flu in the U.S., based on the latest models.
In an update at the end of June, the CDC said the novel H1N1 influenza is continuing to spread in the United States and around the world. “What we're seeing is varying by region in the United States and in different countries,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “The key point is that this new infectious disease is not going away.”
The World Health Organization raised the H1N1 “worldwide pandemic alert” to phase 6, the highest level, on June 11.
Uninsured people and undocumented immigrants are expected to benefit from a public vaccination program, if there is one, Sebelius indicated in her July 10 conference call.
When a reporter asked the HHS secretary about the CDC’s plan to deal with uninsured and undocumented people in the U.S., Sebelius responded that if the government goes ahead with a fall vaccination program, “it’s likely to be a public vaccination program.”
“Some of the challenges that you just addressed will be met by having the public resources essentially pay for the vaccines,” she told the reporter.
Although Sebelius mentioned a vaccination program on several occasions, she said a final decision has not been made. Nevertheless, she noted that HHS is “taking all the steps to be prepared for one,” since that’s probably what scientists are going to recommend.
“We’ll know more by the end of August about whether or not we have a safe and effective vaccine to combat H1N1,” Sebelius added.
On Monday, Sebelius announced that her department will commit $884 million to purchase additional supplies of two key ingredients for potential H1N1 vaccine to further prepare the nation for a potential resurgence of the 2009 H1N1 virus. “The action we are taking today will provide flexibility in a future immunization program, if a program is recommended,” she said.
In May, Sebelius directed approximately $1 billion to be used for the development of a vaccine and for clinical studies to determine dose level and assess the safety and effectiveness of potential vaccines.
The first vaccinations probably would happen in mid-October.
“The vaccination program and the development of a vaccine is really on the fastest track possible based on the fact that we have to conduct clinical trials in order to make sure we have a safe and effective vaccine,” said Sebelius.
In addition to the grants announced last week, the Obama administration has upgraded and expanded its flu.gov Web site; and it also has launched a competition to create a new public service announcement.
“Create a Flu Video & Be Eligible to Win $2500,” the flu.gov Web site says. “Any American can record and submit his or her own public service announcement regarding H1N1 flu preparedness by visiting www.flu.gov. The entries will be judged by experts and the winner will receive a $2,500 prize and the opportunity to have his or her announcement aired on television across the country.”
The public service ad must address preventing or dealing with the flu.