Image: Mom, child get flu shot
Nick Ut  /  AP
Catherine Governale holds her son George after being vaccinated for swine flu in Culver City, Calif., on Friday.
updated 10/25/2009 12:31:20 PM ET 2009-10-25T16:31:20

President Barack Obama has declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency, giving his health chief the power to let hospitals move emergency rooms offsite to speed treatment and protect noninfected patients.

The declaration, signed Friday night and announced Saturday, comes with the disease more prevalent than ever in the country and production delays undercutting the government's initial, optimistic estimates that as many as 120 million doses of the vaccine could be available by mid-October.

Health authorities say more than 1,000 people in the United States, including almost 100 children, have died from the strain of flu known as H1N1, and 46 states have widespread flu activity. So far only 11 million doses of the vaccine have gone out to health departments, doctor's offices and other providers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials.

On Sunday, the leader of the Senate's Republican minority pledged to give the Obama administration any more help it may need to fight the outbreak. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told ABC television's "This Week" that Congress would be willing to provide any additional resources needed on a bipartisan basis.

Administration officials said the emergency declaration was a pre-emptive move designed to make decisions easier when they need to be made. Officials said the move was not in response to any single development.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius now has authority to bypass federal rules when opening alternative care sites, such as offsite hospital centers at schools or community centers if hospitals seek permission.

Some hospitals have opened drive-thrus and drive-up tent clinics to screen and treat swine flu patients. The idea is to keep infectious people out of regular emergency rooms and away from other sick patients.

Quicken access to treatment
Hospitals could modify patient rules β€” for example, requiring them to give less information during a hectic time β€” to quicken access to treatment, with government approval, under the declaration.

Video: Lab among first to discover H1N1 It also addresses a financial question for hospitals β€” reimbursement for treating people at sites not typically approved. For instance, federal rules do not allow hospitals to put up treatment tents more than 250 yards (230 meters) away from the doors; if the tents are 300 yards (275 meters) or more away, typically federal dollars won't go to pay for treatment.

Administration officials said those rules might not make sense while fighting the swine flu, especially if the best piece of pavement is in the middle of a parking lot and some medical centers already are putting in place parts of their emergency plans.

"I think the term emergency declaration sounds more dramatic than it really is," said Dr. Peter Hotez, a research professor and chairman of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at George Washington University. "It's largely an administrative move that's more preemptive ..." He said such a step would give emergency rooms and hospitals the flexibility they need.

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The national emergency declaration was the second of two steps needed to give Sebelius extraordinary powers during a crisis.

On April 26, the administration declared swine flu a public health emergency, allowing the shipment of roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually needed them. At the time, there were 20 confirmed cases in the U.S. of people recovering easily. There was no vaccine against swine flu, but the CDC had taken the initial step necessary for producing one.

"As a nation, we have prepared at all levels of government, and as individuals and communities, taking unprecedented steps to counter the emerging pandemic," Obama wrote in Saturday's declaration.

He said the pandemic keeps evolving, the rates of illness are rising rapidly in many areas and there's a potential "to overburden health care resources."

The government now hopes to have about 50 million doses of swine flu vaccine out by mid-November and 150 million in December. The flu virus has to be grown in chicken eggs, and the yield hasn't been as high as was initially hoped, officials have said.

"Many millions" of Americans have had swine flu so far, according to an estimate that CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden gave Friday. The government doesn't test everyone to confirm swine flu so it doesn't have an exact count. He also said there have been more than 20,000 hospitalizations.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Swine flu fears prompt vaccine hunt

  1. Closed captioning of: Swine flu fears prompt vaccine hunt

    >> you're welcome.

    >>> the centers for disease control is reporting that the swine flu is now widespread in 46 states and that vis to doctors and honts for flu symptoms are skyrocketing. last week alone, 2,500 people were hospitalized and 90 of them died, including 11 children.sobering fig ures have people across the country clamoring for the h1n1 vaccine, but so far it's in short supply. nbc's lee cowan has the latest.

    >> reporter: across the country, thousands are taking part in what's become sort of a scavenger hunt .

    >> they want us to get it as soon as possible.

    >> reporter: health officials say it's the largest vaccination effort since the days of polio in the 1950s .

    >> we've never had an effort to try and get so many with it as quickly as possible.

    >> reporter: angela is seven months pregnant and isn't taking any chances.

    >> you look at the number of women infected with h1n1 and the disproportionate number of them that have died, that's the statistic that's moved me.

    >> reporter: it's moved a lot of people.

    >> i can't make any guarantees.

    >> reporter: in rockville, maryland, 1,500 people lined up this week, and soon the nurses' cupboards were cleared. in cincinnati, 13,000 doses were available, but officials still had to cut the line short. in milwaukee, the hopeful braved the rain. in las vegas , they braved the sun.

    >> i have only two more left.

    >> reporter: and in portland, they braved the border, only to find out that they, too, were out of luck.

    >> it's frustrating, but it is what it is.

    >> reporter: despite all that frustration that's out there, it's hardly panic. controlled concern might be a better way to describe it, and in some places plenty of opportunities for simple acts. like this man, who forfeited his vaccine for the woman standing behind him.

    >> she's pregnant, so let her have the ticket. i can get a shot when guy to my doctor.

    >> reporter: in the meantime, patients are being asked for their patience, that they wait for the vaccine supply to catch up with demand. for "today," lee cowan, nbc news, los angeles .

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