Monday, October 03, 2005

The teachable moment is here

The "teachable moment" seems to have arrived and gotten the attention of even the slowest students. The Bush Administration, characteristically late to the party but now wanting to be center of attention, has finally awakened to the looming threat of pandemic influenza. Plenty out there will be dismayed by my again taking a swipe at the Administration now that they have miraculously stirred from their Persistent Vegetative State on public health issues (the exception that blames the victim, being obesity), but I can't help it. They still haven't finalized their Pandemic Plan which was already ridiculously late and their previous incompetence doesn't bode well for their current engagement. It is time to keep the pressure on these guys. Oh, well.

Warren Veith at the LA Times is reporting that Mike Leavitt's Department of Health and Human Services is taking the lead and hurrying to finish The Plan, allegedly this week (where have I heard that before?).
Bush's preparedness initiative is being directed by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who said that of all the issues within his purview, including hurricane recovery and bioterrorism, the one that keeps him awake at night is influenza.

"It's a world-changing event when it occurs," Leavitt said in an interview. "It reaches beyond health. It affects economies, cultures, politics and prosperity - not to mention human life, counted by the millions."
Like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Bush seems to have taken Russian President Vladimir Putin aside at the ranch and whispered to him, "Hey, Vladimir. I have just one word to say to you. Bird flu."
"We need to take it seriously," Bush said after a recent meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. "I talked to Vladimir about avian flu; I talked to other world leaders about the potential outbreak of avian flu. If avian flu were to hit this country, do we have the proper response mechanisms? Does the federal government have the authority necessary to make certain decisions?" [What might they be?]
Bush allegedly (why don't I believe this?) read John Barry's wonderful book The Great Influenza on one of his many recent vacations. Leavitt is also learning from the pandemic flu catastrophe of 1918:
"They're struggling to get ahead of the curve," said John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza," a book about the 1918 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States. "They're not there yet."

Barry's book is at the top of Leavitt's recommended reading list. He said he had handed out at least 30 copies, tabbed and underlined to emphasize key sections, and planned to distribute an additional 50 or so to lawmakers and administration officials in coming days. He said the book had been read by Bush, who took it with him to the Texas ranch where the president spent his August vacation.
So we got the attention of the political appointees, like Leavitt. Next step, the federal health establishment, like CDC, which has been missing in action of late.
"Leavitt has become the point person on this," [Jeffrey Levi, a pandemic specialist at the public health advocacy group Trust for America's Health] said. "We finally have a political appointee out front talking about these issues. That's the signal that there's a much higher level of engagement."

But some health authorities and preparedness advocates expressed concern that the flurry of activity had not compensated for what they called an inadequate response to evidence that the risk of a pandemic had increased substantially since new strains of avian flu began infecting humans in 1997.
I seem to remember Brownie telling us on August 28 how well-prepared FEMA was for Katrina, too. As John Barry said in a recent public lecture, the first casualty of war is Truth, the first casualty of an emergency is The Plan. And this plan is being rushed out the door half baked because they waited too long to make the batter and put it in the oven. One thing for sure, before it's over it will take lots of dough.

But hey, let's take what we can get without abandoning our own efforts to plan in our local communities. This is the time to do it.
Leavitt said pandemic preparations were underway before Hurricane Katrina struck in late August. But he acknowledged that for him, at least, the sense of urgency was heightened by what he saw first-hand at the 17 evacuee medical shelters he visited.

"You cannot walk into one of those places and see bed after bed after bed of hospital cots," he said, "and not think ... what if we were dealing with this in 50 states?"
As I said, the teachable moment has arrived.