President Obama has declared a national emergency to deal with swine flu. The declaration in and of itself is no reason for panic. It is a tool that allows for, among other things, waivers of certain regulations that limit hospital flexibility, and would allow hospitals to set up facilities that can handle a potential surge of sick patients. As the AP described it, "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." In other words, the national emergency allows for the waiver of bureaucratic regluations that we might be better off without, anyway.
More worrisome, however, is the story in the New York Times regarding the government's consistent overestimation of the supplies of H1N1 vaccines.
As the Times describes the situation, "the government's accomplishments, and its credibility, are being undermined by overly rosy projections that did not take account of the vagaries of vaccine production, making it look as if the vaccine effort is failing." According to the article, the government was aware in September that the vaccine amounts they were promising would not be available, yet it is only recently, in the face of obvious shortages and people being turned away from clinics, that they have lowered their estimates from 40 million available doses to 28 million. This was only one of a number of reduced estimates dating back to late July, when the government was predicting having 160 million available doses by this time.
The problem here is not just the vaccine shortfall, although we clearly need more vaccine supply, and soon, to deal with the H1N1 flu strain. The problem is that government credibility is one of the most valuable and necessary commodities in a crisis; loss of that credibility could lead to greater problems down the road.
We have already seen some grumbling, on both right and left, about taking the vaccine. Anything that gives the doubters reason to question the government's pronouncements and recommendations in this area could be extremely damaging if the situation worsens. The Obama administration needs to be extremely careful in the months ahead about making sure their predictions remain in line with reality.