H1N1 flu is running rampant throughout the U.S., and the country will have received only 25 percent of the vaccine that was expected by the end of October, Sen. Joe Lieberman told a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
The grim news was the focus of a special hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, at which three Cabinet secretaries were called to address the panel: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
As of last week, there were more than 5,000 cases of flu reported, compared to 7 cases in October of last year. More than 800 people have died from H1N1, including 86 children, according to the latest reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s moved with alarming speed and took an exceptionally high toll at a time of year when we don’t encounter a high number of flu cases,” said Lieberman, I-Conn, who leads the Senate's homeland security committee. “Flu spikes typically occur in January. We’re in October … and the number of cases is higher than what we usually see at the flu’s peak in January.”
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CDC officials say there should be widespread availability of the vaccine by mid-November.
Sebelius blamed the vaccine shortage on lower than predicted yields from vaccine manufacturers and on some manufacturing "glitches" that have occurred since May. She said the yields are now more in line with original predictions and that any glitches have been corrected.
"We anticipate a robust production line moving forward," she said.
She said the vaccine that has been received by the U.S. is safe and "right on target" as far as matching the H1N1 strain that is circulating and that most people will require just one vaccination rather than the two originally predicted. Two vaccinations are recommended for children under the age of 10.
Napolitano said federal officials had assumed there would be a lag in vaccine availability and a spike in the flu, so officials are not surprised that H1N1 has spiked at a time when there is not enough vaccine available.
Sebelius said the country is working with five manufacturers to get the vaccine out to the states as quickly as possible and that within another month there should be enough vaccines available for whomever wants to get one. She said so far states have requested 11 millions doses of H1N1 vaccine and the government is shipping it out to states as it becomes available.
Updated guidance has been offered to schools, governments and the private sector on how to handle outbreaks, Napolitano said.
"We could have a surge before everyone is vaccinated and we need to keep the country moving,” she said.
The words came offered little comfort to senators.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she is concerned about the lack of vaccine — her state is only set to receive another 340,000 doses next week. She’s also concerned that there’s not enough pediatric Tamiflu available. Collins said this is of particular worry because children are at high-risk for complications and death from the H1N1 flu virus.
In fact, Sebelius said half of flu hospitalizations this year have involved people under the age of 25, and 90 percent of deaths have occurred in people under the age of 65. This is the opposite of what usually happens in a typical flu season when most hospitalizations and deaths typically involve people over the age of 65.
Lieberman said he is concerned that hospitals are not equipped to handle widespread outbreaks of the virus. He said some health officials predicted as many 300,000 flu patients could require ICU treatment in hospitals this year. Typically, about 200,000 people are hospitalized with influenza each flu season, and less than half require ICU treatment.
“I’m worried the virus is getting ahead of the public health system's ability to control it,” Lieberman said.
A study released Tuesday from Purdue University said it may be too late for the H1N1 vaccine to be of any benefit to Americans, as they may contract the virus before the vaccine takes effect. The study said most people would be infected during the month of October at a time when the vaccine is not available to most Americans.
Sebelius disagreed and said government health officials anticipate a spike in both seasonal and H1N1 cases going forward, not a drop off — meaning that the vaccine will not reach the majority of Americans too late. She added that even those infected with H1N1 in the spring should consider getting the vaccine once widespread availabilty is made.