BANGOR, Maine — When President Barack Obama declared the swine flu pandemic a national emergency during the weekend, he put into place measures hospitals can use if they are overburdened with patients.
The 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.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius now has authority to bypass federal rules when opening alternative care sites, such as off-site hospital centers at schools or community centers if hospitals seek permission.
Officials from Bangor’s two hospitals, Eastern Maine Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital, said Sunday that many of the measures in Obama’s declaration are already part of their emergency plans.
“One of the key things [in the president’s proclamation] is allowing emergency rooms to move off-site,” Karen Clements, EMMC patient care administrator and emergency preparedness and planning director, said Sunday. “That’s already in one of our plans, so this will just help solidify those plans.”
Bethany McKnight, director of public affairs for St. Joseph, said the president’s announcement will have minimal effect on the hospital’s flu pandemic plans, which have been in the works since the first Maine case of H1N1 was announced in April.
“We already have active plans in place to respond to any health emergency, not just H1N1,” she said. “We’re continuing to work closely with the Maine Department of Health [and Human Services] and Maine CDC. We are monitoring the situation closely.”
With the national emergency declaration, off-site emergency rooms could be set up to isolate patients sick with the H1N1 or seasonal flu from others at the hospital, if needed.
Other hospital protocols, such as check-in rules, also could be relaxed to allow quicker response times.
“That’s actually already in our disaster planning,” Clements said. “Planning for H1N1 is similar to planning for any health emergency. An influx of patients activates our disaster plan.”
Some hospitals around the nation have opened drive-throughs 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.
Hospitals could modify patient rules — for example, requiring them to give less information during a hectic time — to quicken access to treatment, with government approval, under the declaration.
It also addresses a financial question for hospitals — 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 away from the doors; if the tents are 300 yards or more away, typically federal dollars won’t go to pay for treat-ment.
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.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that swine flu is still spreading nationwide and hitting pregnant women and young people the hardest. In Maine, nearly 500 confirmed cases of H1N1 have been reported since April, and it is the predominant type of flu people are getting sick with, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control’s Web site. One Mainer has died.
Health authorities say more than 1,000 people in the United States, including almost 100 children, have died from H1N1, and 46 states have widespread flu activity. So far only 11 million doses of vaccine have gone out to health departments, doctors’ offices and other providers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
EMMC spokeswoman Jill McDonald said the hospital’s main concern right now is getting more H1N1 vaccines to the people who need protection, especially pregnant women and young people, as well as staff who work directly with those populations.
“There isn’t enough flu vaccine” to go around, she said. “What we have, so far, is enough to do the high risk staffers [but] we don’t have enough to immunize everyone” within the hospital systems.
“We are doing seasonal flu outreach clinics right now,” McDonald said.
Clement stressed that Mainers should take every precaution to prevent the spread of H1N1, including covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth, getting vaccinated, hand-washing frequently with soap, and staying home if sick.
“We’re really focusing on education, the vaccination programs and teaching people what to do, and when to seek health care,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report