Managing a pandemic: Former HHS Secretary Sebelius recounts H1N1 experiences, criticizes federal response to coronavirus

photo by: AP File Photo

In this file photo from Thursday, April 10, 2014, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on the HHS Department's fiscal Year 2015 budget. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

When former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius took the role of Health and Human Services secretary for President Barack Obama in April 2009, she was walking into the start of a global pandemic — the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, that ultimately infected 61 million people.

Several cases of the new strain had appeared in the United States, but no one had died at the time Sebelius took office, she told the Journal-World in a phone interview Monday.

But when she arrived, a “mobilized effort” across the federal government had already begun to combat the virus and search for an effective vaccine.

“I also worked for a president that believed from the outset that the science was really important,” she said.

That’s in stark contrast, Sebelius said, to how President Donald Trump’s administration has handled the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected nearly 47,000 people in the United States, killing almost 600 as of Tuesday.

Intelligence and news reports have suggested the United States had well over a month of warning that COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, was likely to have a wide-ranging impact stateside.

And from her view, Sebelius said that instead of ensuring America was adequately prepared for when the virus appeared, the Trump administration spent that time downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

Simply, the response from the Trump administration has been different in nearly every way from how the Obama administration handled the last global pandemic.

In the beginning of the H1N1 outbreak, what the disease was doing “terrified people,” Sebelius said. Many of the deaths were in younger, seemingly healthier people, which was far different from a normal flu season.

“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) within two weeks of identifying this new strain, they had a new test available throughout the United States,” Sebelius said. “The CDC was the center for beginning to circulate the testing protocol around the world.”

Those proactive efforts are what seemed to help stem the spread of swine flu, Sebelius said. It’s what helped the disease begin to function essentially as a normal flu season and largely die out by May and June of 2009. And by the time it came back around in the fall of that year, a vaccine existed that dramatically reduced its impact.

That’s not to say that all things are equal between the H1N1 pandemic and the coronavirus. For starters, Sebelius said, COVID-19 is three times more contagious than the average flu and is incredibly efficient at transferring from person to person.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman has regularly said COVID-19 is unlike anything doctors have ever seen before. They still don’t know how the virus reacts to different variables, and there continue to be unknowns in how to treat it.

The United States, though, has failed to make adequate testing supplies available to health care providers across the country. And messaging from Trump and the White House has only served to create misinformation and confusion in an unprecedented time in history, Sebelius said.

“Something is very wrong with the testing. We basically had a month of notice that this virus was serious and contagious, and we didn’t have test kits available and didn’t test properly. We still are really suffering from that,” she said.

“We have a problem with messaging out of the White House where the president again tries to downplay the seriousness of this, told people it would go away, told folks it was just a hoax, don’t pay any attention to science, and somehow Democrats are trying to scare the country. That mixed message is very, very dangerous in a tough situation.”

Sebelius praised Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly for her handling of the pandemic in the Sunflower State.

“Kelly and her colleagues are doing an excellent job of getting money into the hands of small businesses very quickly and giving clarity to parents and teachers,” she said. “Those kinds of things will give people some confidence they can know what will happen in the next weeks and months and put us on the right track.”

“But she can’t solve the testing situation by herself. You have to keep pounding on the door of the federal government.”

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