How Exactly Did President Obama Respond to the H1N1 Flu Pandemic?

How Exactly Did President Obama Respond to the H1N1 Flu Pandemic?

Image Credit: Peter J. Souza / The White House


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A M Reid
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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In the past month, President Donald Trump has repeatedly compared his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to former President Barack Obama’s H1N1 response in 2009. He argues that his administration’s approach has been a lot more efficient and effective, whereas Obama’s was a complete failure.

“If you go back and look at the swine flu and what happened with the swine flu, you’ll see how many people died and how actually nothing was done for such a long period of time, as people were dying all over the place. We’re doing it the opposite. We’re very much ahead of everything,” Trump said in a meeting with the prime minister of Ireland.

Later, at a press briefing March 17, Trump reiterated this rhetoric: “If you look at swine flu — the whole thing in, I guess it was 2009, and what they did and the mistakes they’ve made, they were terrible. They were horrific mistakes. 17,000 people died.”

On Twitter, Trump provided insight into what he believed the “horrific mistakes” were:

“The USA was never set up for this, just look at the catastrophe of the H1N1 Swine Flu (Biden in charge, 17,000 people lost, very late response time), but it soon will be. Great decision to close our China, and other, borders early. Saved many lives!”

He also retweeted the following tweet made by Turning Point USA’s founder Charlie Kirk:

“This is your daily reminder that it took Barack Obama until October of 2009 to declare Swine Flu a National Health Emergency. It began in April of ’09 but Obama waited until 20,000 people in the U.S. had been hospitalized & 1,000+ had died.”

Just how accurate were Trump’s claims? How exactly was Obama’s H1N1 response? Did the “media” really do nothing or downplay it’s effects?

The H1N1 pandemic spread drastically across the globe from 2009 to 2010. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that the “virus was a unique combination of influenza virus genes never previously identified in either animals or people.”

From Apr. 12, 2009, to Apr. 10, 2010, the CDC estimated that H1N1 infected around 60 million citizens in the United States, hospitalized over 260,000 and caused 12,469 deaths.

The H1N1 outbreak occurred during the Obama administration’s first year in office. Although Joe Biden was the vice president, he was not put in charge of handling the H1N1 crisis. Obama gave the majority of the responsibility to the leaders of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the CDC.

The first two cases of H1N1 were confirmed on Apr. 17, in California. On April 24, during a briefing on H1N1, former CDC acting director Richard Besser said the following:

“In terms of the issue of containment, you know, there are things that we see that suggest containment is not very likely and that we’re seeing cases in Texas and we’re seeing cases in San Diego without any connection between them which makes us think that there has been transmission from person to person through several cycles.”

Days later, Obama declared a public health emergency. At that point in time there were 20 confirmed cases and no swine flu related deaths in the United States. He also made an emergency funding request for the H1N1 outbreak to Congress, to help aid development of a vaccine and for other needed measures.

In a speech to the National Academy of Sciences, Obama reassured the public that he was “closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States,” and while “this is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert…it is not a cause for alarm.”

He added that the declaration was a “precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively.”

However, soon after Obama had emphasized that swine flu was “not a cause for alarm,” Biden remarked on NBC’s Today show that he would tell his family members to avoid air and subway travel amid the outbreak.

Biden’s comment caused public concern and confusion, as it contradicted Obama’s previous message. In particular, Biden was blasted by the travel industry for unnecessary fearmongering.

“Vice President Biden’s comment that people should avoid air travel in response to the H1N1 flu outbreak was extremely disappointing,” noted James C. May, who at the time was the CEO of the Air Transport Association (ATA). “The airlines have been working daily with government agencies, none of whom suggest people avoid air travel, unless they are not feeling well.”

Following the backlash, Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary for the Obama administration, apologized on behalf of Biden.

“Obviously, if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that. And I hope that my remarks and remarks of people at CDC and Secretary [Janet] Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say,” Gibbs said at a White House briefing.

On April 28, 11 days after the first H1N1 cases in the United States had been discovered, a test to detect swine flu was created and cleared for use. According to the CDC’s summary report, “On May 1, 2009, CDC test kits began shipping to domestic and international public health laboratories. (Each test kit contained reagents to test 1,000 clinical specimens). From May 1 through September 1, 2009, more than 1,000 kits were shipped to 120 domestic and 250 international laboratories in 140 countries.”

On June 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared H1N1 a pandemic, and the alert level was raised to phase 6. Despite this announcement, the CDC explained that this decision was “a reflection of the spread of the new H1N1 virus, not the severity of illness caused by the virus.”

Months after the pandemic declaration, an effective vaccine for H1N1 was developed, and by early October the first dose of vaccinations were sent out.

However, the vaccine program was not without shortcomings; there were shortages due to delays in the manufacturing process.

Obama had claimed that 160 million doses would readily be available in October, and vaccine production would be swift. Yet, in actuality, the amount sent out in October was less than 30 million. As a result, Obama received heavy criticism for his overly optimistic and misleading estimation regarding vaccine supply.

“The fact that there are vaccine shortages is a huge problem,” remarked Sen. Susan Collins in late October. “I believe the administration took the pandemic seriously, but I also believe administration officials were so determined to show that everything was under control that they sent the wrong signals about the adequacy of supplies of the vaccine.”

An HSS Report evaluating the Obama administration’s performance further pointed out that “most of the vaccine arrived too late to vaccinate much of the public before the pandemic peaked.”

The Obama administration also faced scrutiny for how vaccines were distributed. Vaccines were sent out to states based on their population size, and health experts have since argued that the distribution should have been targeted more, such as prioritizing sending the vaccines to hospitals and areas where H1N1 had spread the most.

By the end of October, when more than 1,000 people had died due to swine flu, Obama declared the outbreak a national emergency. At the time, Obama made it clear that the declaration was to simply enable Kathleen Sebelius, who served as the health and human hervices secretary, the ability to alter and lift certain bureaucratic requirements to provide more support to hospitals. For example, it gave Sebelius the power to allow hospitals to set up off-site treatment sites if they were overwhelmed with patients.

“The 2009 H1N1 pandemic continues to evolve. The rates of illness continue to rise rapidly within many communities across the nation, and the potential exists for the pandemic to overburden health care resources in some localities,” Obama explained in the declaration. “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.”

“This is not a response to any new developments,” added Reid Cherlin, who was a White House spokesman. “It’s an important tool in our kit going forward.”

Throughout the H1N1 outbreak, Obama generally consistently shared public health information, and addressed what measures citizens needed to be taking to protect themselves from the virus. Obama also refuted misinformation quickly, such as the rumor that getting the vaccine would be compulsory for all citizens.

Moreover, a dedicated website for the swine flu pandemic — Flu.Gov — was set up. Sebelius described it as a highly convenient “one-stop shop for people to get information.”

The media coverage of H1N1 increased drastically from late April, after Mexico reported their first H1N1 fatalities. The Project for Excellence in Journalism discovered that in the week April 27, – May 3, across 55 new outlets, 31 percent of news coverage was swine flu related. In 86 percent of U.S. news stories, Catherine Goodall and her colleagues found that severity information was either a prominent topic, or at least mentioned.

Media outlets, though, were accused by some Americans of overhyping the pandemic. A Gallup poll, conducted May 5, 2009 found that 45 percent of Americans believed the media had overexaggerated the deadliness of swine flu.

Despite this, Dr. Goldacre, a British physician, suggested that the majority of U.S. media outlets did not overhype the pandemic’s severity or give false coverage. Rather, it just seemed that way because the media focused on reporting the potential risks.

“Everyone is just saying: we don’t know, it could be bad, and the newspapers are reporting that. Sure, there’s a bit of vaudeville in the headlines, but they’re not saying things that are wrong,” Dr. Goldacre explained.

“They were risks, risks that didn’t materialise, but they were still risks. That’s what a risk is. I’ve never been hit by a car, but it’s not idiotic to think about it,” he added.

On Aug. 10, 2010, over a year since the first cases had been detected in the United States, the WHO announced that H1N1 was no longer a pandemic.

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