The White House has issued a warning that swine flu may infect 120 million Americans, of whom 300,000 could have to go into intensive care, and 90,000 could die. This comes on the heels of Dick Armey's unfortunate prediction that the Obama administration was preparing to hype swine flu in order to help pass health-care-reform legislation. I'm all for some good political scuffling at the appropriate time, but this flu is serious business.
Up to now, the Obama administration has benefited from the preparations undertaken by the Bush administration for handling H1N1. These preparations were essential in limiting the outbreak this past spring and in tamping down public panic.
As we approach the new flu season this fall, the Obama administration needs to make this issue its own, and it appears to be doing so. The government has spent almost $2 billion on 195 million doses of vaccine and adjuvant, which includes both shots and FluMist. The goal is to be able to purchase 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate the entire U.S. population if need be. The vaccine itself would cost $5 billion, and it would cost $9 billion to administer the vaccinations to the whole population. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is preparing to spend almost $5 million to promote vaccinations.
The administration has also suggested a course of action to businesses, which includes liberal allowance of sick leave, encouragement of telecommuting, and contingency planning in case of a possible outbreak. Some of these recommendations could edge into partisan waters. Democrats tend to favor more liberal sick-leave policies, and Republicans often favor telecommuting, especially if it is combined with comp or flex time, which unions generally oppose. Nevertheless, the administration appears thus far to have kept away from controversy in these areas.
For these reasons, it's best for Republicans to stay away from accusations of partisanship when it comes to swine-flu preparedness. At the same time, the Obama administration needs to continue to handle this issue in a professional and nonpartisan way in order to avoid panic should there in fact be a larger outbreak this fall. Some things are just too important for politics to get in the way.