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.
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.