WASHINGTON—As President Barack Obama received praise here for his quick response in declaring an “emergency” in the deadly swine flu outbreak, the politics of the pandemic began to emerge.
At the insistence of Republican senators, $870 million in emergency flu pandemic funding was stripped from the president’s economic stimulus package in February.
Public health advocates urged the Obama administration and Congress to restore the funding quickly.
Americans United for Change said the $870 million cutback is more proof that the Republicans are the “Party of No.” Acting Director Tom McMahon asked the GOP lawmakers “if they have any regrets for insisting that $870 million for pandemic preparation be stripped from the stimulus package to pay for tax cuts for millionaires.”
The Trust For America’s Health – a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that focuses on epidemics and prevention — convened a telephone media briefing April 27, to urge Congress to restore the funds and provide an additional $350 million annually to bolster the state and local public health system hammered by Bush-era budget cuts. The trust’s executive director, Jeffrey Levi, said the money should be rushed through as an emergency supplemental.
There is “no more pandemic preparedness money in the pipeline for state and local public health agencies,” TFAH warned. “In addition to the cutoff of pandemic flu funding, public health agencies have seen their all hazards’ preparedness funding drop about 25 percent since 2005.”
Dr. Paul Jerris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Organizations, said state and local public health agencies have been forced to lay off about 12,000 health care workers just as the swine flu epidemic begins to hit.
“They are shifting resources from one function to another to meet this outbreak,” Jerris said. “We are extremely concerned about the diminishing funding for state and local preparedness as well as the removal of all funding for pandemic flu and the decrease in funding for hospital preparedness. This is a matter of losing the infrastructure created over the past several years.”
Jerris praised the gains at the federal level in preparing to cope with a pandemic especially by the Center for Disease Control. But, he added, it’s not enough.
State budgets are “under siege” he said and many highly trained emergency medical responders “are losing their jobs” just when they are desperately needed, he said. “These are the boots on the ground.”
Republican lawmakers attacked pandemic funding on grounds that it has nothing to do with the economy. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine told her colleagues, “Everybody in this room is concerned about a pandemic flu. But does it belong in this bill? Should we have $870 million in this bill. No we should not.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.) had warned that if a pandemic strikes, workers could be ordered to stay at home, factories could be shuttered, to prevent the spread of the disease—a warning that is coming true with a vengeance in Mexico City.
The Service Employees International Union assailed Senate Republicans for blocking confirmation of former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services at a time of a national health emergency.
“They’re playing politics with the health of our nation and it could end up costing us lives,” said SEIU Online Campaign Manager Jessica Kutch.
In related maneuvering, hog-processing giant Smithfield Foods, Inc., based in Virginia, was busy dodging reports that its massive pig-breeding farms in Veracruz, Mexico, was the source of the pandemic.
As far back as late March, roughly one-sixth of the residents in the state of Veracruz began complaining of respiratory infections that they say can be traced to nearby corporate farms, the Associated Press reported on April 28.
Mexican City-based newspaper La Jornada broke the story on massive respiratory illnesses in the Veracruz town of La Gloria on April 6.
Now the town is the possible “ground zero” in the epidemic. La Gloria resident, 4-year-old Edgar Hernandez, is suspected of being the first to be diagnosed with swine flu. He eventually recovered.
While officials with the Smithfield say they’ve found no sign of swine flu on its farms, and Mexican authorities haven’t officially determined the outbreak’s origin, Jose Luis Martinez, a 34-year-old resident of La Gloria, said he knew the minute he learned about the outbreak on the news that it was the same thing town residents have been suffering.
“When we saw it on the television, we said to ourselves, ‘This is what we had,’” he said. “It all came from here. … The symptoms they are suffering are the same that we had here,” the AP reported. Many La Gloria residents travel for work to Mexico City.
Martinez said residents have been fighting for years to force the farms to improve their pig-waste management. Mexican news media reported that a municipal health official traced the source of a disease outbreak in La Gloria to a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste.