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Testimony by Secretary Napolitano to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Federal Coordination in Response to the H1N1 Flu Outbreak

Release Date: 
April 29, 2009

Dirksen Senate Office Building

Secretary Napolitano: Thank you, Mr. Chairman [Senator Joe Lieberman], Senator [Susan] Collins, members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the national response to the H1N1 flu outbreak. This is, as you have noted, a serious situation that we are treating aggressively.

As President Obama said yesterday it is a cause for concern but not for alarm. There is a lot we don't yet know about this outbreak, but we have been preparing, as if we are facing a true pandemic, even though we don't know the ultimate scope of what will occur. We also have been preparing with the understanding that this will be a marathon and not a sprint. We are going to be at this for a while.

Mr. Chairman, as you noted, the Secretary of Homeland Security is the principal federal officer for domestic incident management, including outbreaks like this one. Under that role, we have been leading a true collaborative effort. HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] and the CDCs [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] also have lead roles on the health and science aspects of this outbreak, but every department of the federal government, or virtually everyone, has a role to play.

For example, the Department of Education already has a conference call with 1,400 participants on how to report, identify and prevent H1N1 in school facilities. The United States Department of Agriculture has been working to reassure people the safety of our pork and pork products, and to work with other countries with respect to the import of our pork products.

The United States Trade Representative [Ron Kirk] I was with yesterday was doing the same. As you noted, our state, local and tribal partners are absolutely indispensable, because on many questions they actually have the lead role. They are the first responders. We are now at the Department of Homeland Security conducting daily conference calls with these partners. Some days we've had as many as 48 states participating. We have 40-plus states participating on a regular basis; and, indeed, the public has a role to play here and a responsibility—responsibility to cover our mouths when we cough and responsibility to wash our hands regularly, and if you are sick not to go to work, not to get on a plane or a bus. If your child is sick not to send them to school to avoid infecting others.

I am pleased to be here with [Interim Deputy Director for the Science and Public Health Program] Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat from the CDC. I want to commend the CDC and their work on this. They have been absolutely phenomenal to work with here, and educating all of us about this particular strain and about flu outbreaks in general. The career public health officials, they are doing a terrific job, as are the career officials at the Department of Homeland Security, and I want to praise them as well.

As you noted, part of the preparation is analyzing what we have with respect to antivirals. The national stockpile has 50 million courses and we are releasing 25 percent of the state portion already.

Senator Collins, you asked about who's been delivered already: Indiana, Nevada, Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio have received antivirals from the stockpile today. Antivirals are on their way to Arizona, California, Texas and Utah, and I'd be happy to supply the other schedule for the delivery, but that's the status as of this morning.

We have placed priority on states with confirmed cases of H1N1 and, of course, with the Southwest border. But all states will ultimately get resources and we intend to have complete delivery by the third of May. The State Department has also—

Senator Lieberman: Excuse me. That would be a complete delivery of the 25 percent, not of the full 50 [percent]?

Secretary Napolitano: —correct, Mr. Chairman.

Senator Lieberman: Right, thanks.

Secretary Napolitano: The State Department also has been involved with the CDC. We have issued travel health alerts and travel warnings for not essential travel to Mexico and I anticipate those warnings and alerts will be up until the public health officials tell us they no longer need to be. Our actions are being guided by science and by what the public health community is telling us.

In addition, with respect to the Department of Homeland Security, we are moving forward in accord with planning and frameworks that had been worked on for several years. At the land ports and at the airports, CBP, Customs and Border Protection, is monitoring incoming travelers for possible H1N1 flu symptoms. Those who appear sick are put in separate rooms to be evaluated by health officials.

The TSA [Transportation Security Administration] also has protocols, similar protocols, for air travelers who appear ill, and the Coast Guard is working with shipping companies with respect to possibly ill crew members.

The traveler's health advisory notices made by the CDC tell travelers about the H1N1 flu, what to do if they have symptoms, and CBP is distributing tear sheets, cards, at the land ports and to those coming in on planes from Canada and Mexico.

We're also distributing materials to passengers on cruises that stopped in Mexico; and, of course, TSA is posting all of this information at airport checkpoints. The actions at the border are consistent with and match the recommendations of the CDC and the World Health Organization; and here I want to pause a moment.

There has been some question raised about closing the borders. And, first, the actual statutory authority is not with respect to closing an entire border. It's with respect to closing a particular port or series of ports. But I think as Admiral Schuchat will explain in greater detail, making such a closure right now has not been merited by the facts; would have very, very little marginal benefit in terms of containing the actual outbreak of virus within our own country.

As I mentioned, our coordination with state, local partners is very robust. We are also coordinating with our international partners and with the private sector. I have been in phone contact with the governors of many of the states and I'll be making another series of calls this afternoon. I have spoken with my direct counterparts in Mexico and Canada.

We have adopted, in many respects, a tri-national approach to this because the virus itself doesn't know when to stop at a border or not; and the private sector office and the infrastructure protection offices of the department are working with the private sector and really informing them that it's time to dust off their pandemic flu plans if they haven't exercised them to get them ready and really to focus on business continuity planning as we move forward.

Within the department we are working to prepare the health of our own employees. We are prepositioning antivirals as well as personal protective equipment in case those are needed, and we continue our operations in full force.

Let me conclude with this: every American has a responsibility here with this outbreak. Every community has a responsibility to work on and get the word out about preparedness. Obviously, our thoughts, prayers, sympathies go out to the families already affected by this H1N1 virus, but our goal is to make sure that the country is prepared that we respond with alacrity and with efficiency to the current outbreak.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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