Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is asking that people be patient when it comes to the H1N1 flu vaccine. She's apologized for the vaccine not being more readily available sooner but reassures us that it's coming.
Secretary Sebelius would be justified if she went further, if she pointed out that we are incredibly fortunate to have as much vaccine available as we have already. She would even be justified if she pointed out that everyone might take a minute to appreciate what we do have in this country: fantastically rapid production and distribution of a life-saving vaccine!
Consider this: it takes about seven months for manufacturers -- working within the standards and regulations of the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration -- to produce a new vaccine for any given flu season. With H1N1, their timetable has been compressed dramatically. The H1N1 virus was not detected until April and was not isolated until May -- a time of year when the regular flu vaccine is traditionally already well into the manufacturing process.
Bottom line: what is usually an already-intense, seven-month development, testing, approval and production job is being accomplished in three months.
All parties involved are fighting incredibly hard against the clock and, of course, against a daunting foe: a deadly flu virus. It's serious business and it is being taken seriously.
Remember, too, that rushing a vaccine involves rushing Mother Nature to some extent -- and we all know how well that works. A virus is constantly changing and mutating, working against those who seek to defeat it. At the same time, nature is a necessary ally in the development of our ammunition (the vaccine). For example, vaccines require millions of chicken eggs for their production. Flu vaccines are created by injecting fertilized chicken eggs with weakened strains of a flu virus. Millions of eggs are needed to produce a single flu season's worth of vaccine. Which means that chickens are really under the gun this year! Imagine the eggs necessary to produce the traditional annual flu vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine at the same time AND eggs for breakfast.
To search for a place to lay blame makes no sense. An objective view reveals an earnest and successful effort operating against all odds.
Having served on the front line (and in the front offices) of a handful of government agencies myself, I know very well that cabinet members never say, "hey, let's keep things in perspective" to the American people. The tradition is to say, "yes, it's a serious problem and we are working very hard on it" whether or not the problem can or should be addressed by the federal government and whether or not a problem can realistically be solved in a compressed time frame. Both Republicans and Democrats do this. It's reality, but it can be tiresome. The government is not the land of miracles or quick national (or global!) fixes any more than the president is an omnipotent leader who can fix problems by waving a wand. The executive branch actually shouldn't have to apologize every time they can't deliver a solution the millisecond that "Good Morning America" says there is a problem.
So take a moment to consider what Secretary Sebelius' staff (not to mention the White House staff) would never let her tell you: We're unbelievably fortunate to have as much vaccine, as quickly, as we do. And the manufacturers and scientists involved are doing a critically important job incredibly well, considering the enormous pressure of time and public demand.
As any child (we hope) learns early in his or her life, repeatedly asking "are we there yet?" on a road trip really doesn't make the car move any faster. Mom and dad are not driving slowly to torture their children. And vaccine manufacturers and government scientists are certainly not dragging their feet on producing a life-saving vaccine. Their sense of urgency, we can be certain, is greater than anyone's.
Secretary Sebelius and her administration colleagues should consider modifying their message when reporters ask their version of "are we there yet?" She and other administration officials should choose to foster a feeling of fortune and confidence instead of apologizing as if they, or their vaccine-manufacturing partners, are guilty of moving slowly. The administration should consider pointing out that the U.S. has the capacity to address this vaccination challenge better and faster than any other country on earth. The answer of "yes, sorry, we are really hurrying" just flames public anxiety and reduces a natural faith that Americans have that good things, life-saving things, do come to those who have the patience to wait in this free and prosperous nation.
Jean Card is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. She has served as a speechwriter for U.S. Secretaries of Treasury and Labor and the Attorney General.