The H1N1 ‘political test’?

THE H1N1 ‘POLITICAL TEST’?…. The New York Times reported today that the shortage of an H1N1 vaccine poses a “political test” for President Obama. I’m not sure if that’s a fair characterization.

Indeed, given the reporting in the article, it seems as if the president has already passed the political test.

The moment a novel strain of swine flu emerged in Mexico last spring, President Obama instructed his top advisers that his administration would not be caught flat-footed in the event of a deadly pandemic. […]

Aware that the president would be judged on how well he handled his first major domestic emergency, the Obama administration left little to chance. It built a new Web site, Flu.gov — a sort of one-stop shopping for information about H1N1, the swine flu virus. It staged role-playing exercises for public health officials and members of the news media.

It commissioned public service announcements, featuring the fuzzy Sesame Street characters Elmo and Rosita singing in English and Spanish about “the right way to sneeze.” The president added a swine flu update to his regular intelligence briefing — he also receives an in-depth biweekly memorandum on the prevalence of the disease worldwide and in the United States — and appeared in the Rose Garden to urge Americans to wash their hands.

Early on, Mr. Obama told his aides he wanted them to “learn from past mistakes,” said John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s domestic security adviser, who has been coordinating the flu-preparedness effort.

In June, the president even invited veterans of the 1976 effort to a private meeting in the White House, hoping to draw upon their experiences dealing with the last major flu epidemic, including the proper public role for a president in this situation.

Taken together, it seems the president immediately recognized the seriousness of a public health issue, mobilized officials, launched a public information campaign, and ordered the creation and distribution of a vaccine. The White House sought out all the right advice, from all the right people, and acted quickly. This isn’t my area of expertise, but it sounds like the White House has been responding to the H1N1 problem exactly the way it should.

So, what’s the problem? Apparently, HHS relied on estimates from manufacturers about the speed and supply of a vaccine, and the manufacturers were overly optimistic about what they could produce. The private companies reported in July they would have 120 million doses available by this week. They were off by about 97 million.

Counting on manufacturers’ assurances, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, may have been “naive.” Perhaps. But it was obviously outside the control of the administration.

The NYT report added that vaccine shortages are “threatening to undermine public confidence in government.” Quality, accurate reporting should let the public know that wouldn’t make any sense.

When we think about government failures on public emergencies — the response to Hurricane Katrina, for example — we see certain characteristics, such as negligence, incompetence, tardiness, and ignorance. None of these concerns seems to apply to the administration’s handling of the H1N1 emergency.