WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2009— -- A national emergency conjures up images of major disaster like hurricanes and floods, not something as seemingly innocuous as the flu.
But with infection levels rising across the nation, President Obama isn't taking any chances: He declared swine flu a national emergency.
The question is: How does declaring swine flu a national emergency, practically change the fight against the epidemic?
In essence, it gives hospitals the freedom and flexibility they need to start treating the virus like an emergency, said Dr. Richard Besser, former head of the Centers for Disease Control.
"This declaration really changes the playing fields for hospitals," Besser said. "They've been doing planning for disasters. Now they can implement those plans."
According to officials at HHS, that means allowing hospitals to set up alternate care facilities for swine flu victims in schools, nursing homes or other satellite sites without jeopardizing their reimbursement payments from Medicare and Medicaid.
It also allows hospitals to transfer patients to different facilities if they no longer have the capacity to deal with a massive influx of patients as a result of swine flu, and to set up triage centers to determine levels of care and treat the sickest patients first.
Nicole Lurie, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the epidemic is "continuing to progress and more people are going to emergency rooms, more people are going to hospitals and sadly more people are dying."
Even so, she and White House officials insisted that the national emergency declaration isn't linked to current infection rates.
Instead, they said this is a precautionary move that allows HHS to waive some federal requirements for hospitals that may get overrun with swine flu victims in coming weeks and months.
"The American people shouldn't panic over this, they shouldn't be concerned over this," Lurie said. "This is just another really proactive step that we are trying to take so that everybody is prepared as they can be."
H1N1 Swine Flu a National Emergency: What Does It Mean?
This is the first time Obama has declared a national emergency and the first time that a president has declared such an emergency explicitly because of a public health crisis like a virus since the presidential power of emergency was created in 1976.
Dr. William Schaffner, the head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, said the swine flu and the rush to get vaccinated against it, echoes some of what was happening during the polio outbreak in 1955, although the H1N1 virus is far less severe.
"I remember standing in a very long line getting my polio vaccine. And I think this is comparable," Schaffner said. "We know now this H1N1 virus is all over the United States. It's making children sick. It's making pregnant women seriously ill. We'd like to prevent as much of that as possible. So when the vaccine becomes available, stand in that line a little bit, get that family vaccinated."
The White House and top officials at HHS said the emergency declaration simply paves the way for health care providers to better fight the epidemic later on -- as it spreads.
"This whole thing isn't about the fact that things are worse now," Lurie said. "It's really about hospitals being able to be prepared in case they get worse."
But worse could be on the way. Already 1,000 people have died in the U.S. as a result of swine flu and it's active in 46 states. And one thing the President's emergency declaration doesn't change is the production of the vaccine, which is still far behind schedule and far short of demand.