A tsunami of sick people has swamped hospitals in many parts of the country in recent weeks as a severe flu season has taken hold. In Rhode Island, hospitals diverted ambulances for a period because they were overcome with patients. In San Diego, a hospital erected a tent outside its emergency room to manage an influx of people with flu symptoms.
Wait times at scores of hospitals have gotten longer.
But if something as foreseeable as a flu season — albeit one that is pretty severe — is stretching health care to its limits, what does that tell us about the ability of hospitals to handle the next flu pandemic?
That question worries experts in the field of emergency preparedness, who warn that funding cuts for programs that help hospitals and public health departments plan for outbreaks and other large-scale events have eroded the very infrastructure society will need to help it weather these types of crises.
“There’s nothing really that can impact on a national level — or for that matter on an international level — more quickly than influenza,” warned Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
A dozen years ago or so, government officials placed pandemic influenza preparedness efforts on the front burner because of fears that a dangerous bird flu strain — spreading quickly across Asia at the time — might trigger a catastrophic pandemic.
Those worries were focused on H5N1, a poultry flu virus that infects few people but kills more than half of those confirmed to have been infected.
Then in 2009, the first flu pandemic in four decades did hit. But instead of bird flu, it was a swine flu virus called H1N1. There were not mass casualties. In fact, the global death toll was estimated at just over 200,000 — fewer people than the World Health Organization says die from seasonal influenza most years.
Pandemic influenza lost its big, bad bogeyman status. And in the years since, budgets for preparedness work have suffered.
SOURCE: HELEN BRANSWELL