WASHINGTON BUREAU - President Obama on Saturday declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency, a procedural step designed to allow health care providers to speed treatment and slow the spread of the disease.
The emergency declaration gives Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius temporary authority to grant waivers for providers to respond more quickly to the disease, such as allowing hopsitals to set up off-site emergency rooms to treat potential flu victims apart from other patients.
The step was taken to give the government and health care providers the flexibility to respond to any surge in the disease in the coming weeks and months.
``The potential exists for the pandemic to overburden health care resources in some localities,'' the proclamation said. ``Thus, in recognition of the continuing progression of the pandemic, and in further preparation as a nation, we are taking additional steps to facilitate our response.''
Administration officials said the move was not made as a result of any particular troubling development, but as a pre-emptive measure to ensure that the tools for a quick response are in place.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 states have reported widespread incidence of the swine flu, also known as H1N1. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in April, there have been more than 20,000 hospitalizations from laboratory-confirmed infections and more than 1,000 deaths.
Under the emergency declaration, hospitals and doctors could be relieved of some of the federal rules that govern their routine operations. For example, hospitals could ask to expedite admissions procedures or to establish separate facilities, such as flu-treatment tents, to isolate infected patients.