WASHINGTON – The White House on Wednesday released its national plan to prepare Americans for the worst-case scenario of a bird flu outbreak that relies on states, cities and businesses to be prepared rather than the federal government.
"Our nation will face this global threat united in purpose and united in action in order to best protect our families, our communities, our nation and our world from the threat of pandemic influenza," President Bush wrote in a letter to Americans.
Though bird flu is not something that can now be passed from person to person, a possible outbreak could kill up to 2 million Americans, but the White House stressed that the disease that has killed people in Asia, Europe and elsewhere in the world may not reach the United States.
“We do not know whether the bird virus that we are seeing overseas will ever become a human virus,” said Frances Townsend, Bush's White House homeland security adviser. “And we cannot predict whether a human virus will lead to a pandemic.”
The 227-page plan calls for protecting human and animal health, international considerations, border and transportation security and public safety. It does not call for closing the border, but it does provide limits on travel.
The plan also promotes increasing the supply of flu treatments, hoping to provide for up to 50 million people by 2007.
“We are not in the midst of a human pandemic. But we cannot predict when one will happen. This is why it is important for everyone to prepare,” Townsend said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., agreed that the government needs to be prepared if an outbreak hits.
“You've got to pull out all the stops. You’ve got to separate people. You’ve got to close down the schools … If it hits, you want to contain it,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to have the federal government stepping in and saying ‘this is what you do.’”
Bush has submitted a budget request to Congress, asking for $7.1 billion to pay for the plan that was initially released in November. A team of health professionals and experts then prepared a road map for the federal government. Congress has approved $3.8 billion so far.
Dr. Manny Alvarez, FOX News medical contributor, said he expects the bird flu to reach the United States, and families need to prepare for the worst-case scenario by gathering items such as gloves and masks.
“This is going to be an infectious disease problem. You have to start thinking of how you are going to create an environment at home that is going to protect you from not allowing this bird flu virus infect you at home,” Alvarez said. “All of those things are part of the plan and we have to think about it, unfortunately.”
Influenza pandemics strike every few decades when a never-before-seen strain arises. It's impossible to predict when the next will occur, although concern is rising that the Asian bird flu, called the H5N1 strain, might lead to one if it starts spreading easily from person to person.
The country currently is in Stage 0 — worrisome flu strains are circulating in birds. Stage 5 would be widespread U.S. cases. At some stage in between, U.S. health officials would leap to action to help world authorities detect and contain any potential pandemic-triggering outbreaks abroad, Townsend said.
If officials are unable to contain it, the plan will work to slow the spread and give the nation time to prepare for its arrival by producing vaccine and dispensing stockpiles of critical medical supplies.
In a severe pandemic, up to 40 percent of the work force could be off the job for two weeks, the report estimates. Because 85 percent of the systems that are vital to society — food production, medicine and financial services — are privately run, the administration aims to use the new report to energize businesses in particular to start planning how they will keep running under those conditions.
"No less important will be the actions of individual citizens, whose participation is necessary to the success of these efforts," Bush said in the letter.
For businesses, the report encourages setting clear, non-punitive sick leave policies to limit the possibly infected from staying at work, and using alternate offices, work-at-home options and "snow days" to minimize employee contact. Also, it advises regularly cleaning offices — flu can live on hard surfaces for 48 hours — as well as not shaking hands and separating co-workers by at least three feet.
But the advice on distance assumes that flu only spreads in the large droplets of coughs and sneezes; tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for long periods can spread it, too, say medical professionals.
"We depend on everyone outside of the government to take this as seriously as we do," Townsend said.
The incremental plan already was drawing complaints from critics who say that despite months of dire talk about the threat of a pandemic, the administration hasn't accomplished enough.
"Other nations have been implementing their plans for years, but we're reading ours for the first time now. These needless delays have put Americans at risk," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
The main defense: Screening travelers from affected countries and diverting or quarantining flights that arrive with possibly ill patients aboard.
But people can spread the flu for a full day before they show symptoms. Still, trying to meet and quarantine planes could be impossible.
"I'm dubious, No. 1, that just physically that's feasible. And, No. 2, I frankly wonder exactly what degree of effectiveness can be expected by that," said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, an adviser to the government on flu vaccine.
FOX News' Megyn Kendall and The Associated Press contributed to this report.