Senior health officials in the Obama administration told a House panel on Tuesday that they do not have a real-time picture of the spread of the H1N1 flu strain, a comprehensive view that information technology could provide to minimize the number of infections from the contagious virus.
President Obama on Oct. 24 declared the H1N1 flu a national emergency to grant health care organizations more flexibility to deal with a potential flood of patients. The declaration will make it easier for hospitals to set up off-site screening to protect noninfected patients and triage patients to open up more beds.
"Oftentimes we would like to have information in real time, and we don’t," said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Health and Human Services Department. Lurie, who testified at a House hearing on the federal response to the re-emerging threat of pandemic flu, said the kinds of instantaneous information that would be useful include details on the progression of the disease and stress on the health care system.
"There appears to be a concern with our ability . . . to get the data [and] harness that data from a biosurveillance perspective and . . . bring that together to share the latest information, so we can stay on top" of the outbreak, said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., a member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology. The panel convened on Tuesday to hear from officials at HHS and the Homeland Security Department.
The nation tracks flu outbreaks through systems at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as through networks set up by state and local governments.
The federal government, in collaboration with private health care systems, now has close to real-time updates from many emergency rooms nationwide, Lurie said. In addition, under a federally funded crisis preparation program, hospitals are required to report weekly on the number of available beds and ventilators at their facilities, as well as occupancy rates in intensive care units.
Still, the government needs more monitoring, Lurie acknowledged. "Harnessing the power of IT and working with a number of private sector partners, we can get a lot further than we have been," she noted. "But at the same time, it’s not going to replace human beings on the ground — the clinician calling with something funny or needing to track down an outbreak."
DHS officials said the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched a Web tool to improve situational awareness for relevant agencies and private companies.
Updates to the system, called the common operating picture, include requests for federal assistance, reported school closings, briefings from federal agencies, absenteeism statistics and other effects on critical resources.
A number of subcommittee members raised questions about conflicting or unclear messages to the public regarding the flu. Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas asked what the government is doing to communicate the importance of knowing when to seek medical care.
Lurie said the federal flu home page, Flu.gov, and state and local health departments are delivering the same message: People in high risk groups and who are sick should get treated early with antivirals."