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Health Workers Man HHS Flu Command Center


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Governments are trying to calibrate their response to the swine flu. For now, at least, the virus seems less deadly than originally feared. Schools are still closing when swine flu appears, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering whether that should continue.

INSKEEP: The lessons of a past pandemic suggest that the spread of information may matter as much as the spread of the virus, and in a moment we'll examine the government's failure to tell the truth as the flu killed millions starting in 1918.

MONTAGNE: First we'll look at what the government is doing today. NPR's Joanne Silberner visits the strategy center at the Department of Health and Human Services.

(Soundbite of conversations)

JOANNE SILBERNER: This is the command center for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington - rows of polished dark brown desks, bright maps projected on every bit of wall space. Everything is going pretty much as planned.

Mr. GERALD PARKER (Department of Health and Human Services): This is, I would say, at a heightened but not stressed situation.

SILBERNER: That's Gerald Parker, who supervises what's called the Secretary's Operations Center. It's designed to coordinate the federal response to any serious public health emergency. About two dozen people, some uniformed, some not, are talking or they're on the phones or checking for latest outbreak reports on their computer screens. Kevin Yeskey is the director of the Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations at HHS.

Mr. KEVIN YESKEY (Deputy Assistant Secretary; HHS): In a nutshell, essentially we are the eyes and ears for the department's response activity.

SILBERMAN: They are taking in information from the Centers from the Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and other agencies, plus state and local governments and the media. The CDC is coordinating the public health research. The people here in this room are doing the basic bureaucratic but necessary work to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing across the entire government, not just HHS but other government agencies as well. And it's providing the kind of information, like the availability of tests and drugs, to policy makers who are deciding what to do next. Parker says it takes a lot of work.

Mr. PARKER: Phone calls, meetings, teleconferences, conference calls, video teleconferencing, and then face to face meetings. So we use every form of communication and tools to make sure that we have effective coordination.

SILBERNER: So with the information gathered by the center, HHS was able to issue an emergency public health declaration, giving the FDA the power to make drugs and test kits more widely available. It's calm. Yeskey says that because they've done countless mock drills.

Mr. YESKEY: We've been preparing for this and have been developing the plans and exercising the plans and trying to maintain a high level of alert for this, so when we did detect cases we'd be able to respond appropriately.

SILBERNER: There is one thing, though, that they didn't prepare for. Parker says the drills were based on a new flu starting in some far off location, not the U.S. or Mexico, and the first step was to figure out whether it could be kept from coming in.

Mr. PARKER: Nonetheless we were able to just open our playbooks and deal with the information as it was unfolding.

SILBERNER: Even with the surprise, Parker says things are going very well, better than the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The center has more people now and it has more time to practice.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.