What Does a Swine Flu National Emergency Mean?

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It’s déjà vu all over again. The Obama administration declared the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak a “national emergency” over the weekend—just as it declared a “public health emergency” back in April, shortly after the outbreak began. So what’s the difference?

When the government first declared the public health emergency in April, it paved the way for a streamlined response for the swine flu threat. For example, the government was able to distribute stockpiles of antiviral drugs, and other supplies, and expand the recommended usage of those drugs under emergency authorizations.

The latest declaration was done to allow the federal government to waive certain regulatory requirements so that hospital emergency rooms and other health-care providers can respond more quickly. Such waivers have been provided to hospitals in past emergencies, such as floods and hurricanes.

The “national emergency” declaration doesn’t mean that the nature of the outbreak has changed dramatically. But the flu is indeed spreading rapidly. According to the CDC this flu is widespread in 46 states, and flu activity is higher than the peak of many seasonal flu seasons. Health officials are concerned about a busier than usual flu season, and want to make sure hospitals have the tools to deal with greater volume.

What can be waived?

Hospitals can request a waiver of certain regulatory requirements that generally protect patients during day to day activities, but may slow down an emergency response due to high volume. Here are some examples:

  • Hospitals can request to set up an alternative screening location away from the main hospital.
  • Hospitals can request to transfer patients between emergency rooms at different hospitals and inpatient wards (which is usually not allowed due to access and privacy concerns).
  • Critical access hospitals (facilities that are certified under a specific set of Medicare conditions) and skilled nursing facilities can request waivers to allow them to increase the number of beds available and the average time of patient stays, which typically have set maximums.