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Swine Flu Could Create Hospital Bed Shortage

Report finds demand could exceed supply in 15 states

THURSDAY, Oct. 1 (HealthDay News) -- There could be a shortage of hospital beds in 15 states if 35 percent of Americans get sick from the H1N1 (swine) flu virus, and 12 other states could reach or exceed 75 percent of their hospital bed capacity, a study released Thursday shows.

The number of people who could get sick with H1N1 flu in the United States ranges from a high of 12.9 million in California and a low of 186,434 in Wyoming, and the number of people who are hospitalized could range from a high of 168,025 in California to a low of 2,485 in Wyoming, according to the report from the non-profit group Trust for America's Health.

The 15 states that could be at capacity or exceed hospital bed capacity are: Arizona (117 percent); California (125 percent); Connecticut (148 percent); Delaware (203 percent); Hawaii (143 percent); Maryland (143 percent); Massachusetts (110 percent); Nevada (137 percent); New Jersey (101 percent); New York (108 percent); Oregon (107 percent); Rhode Island (143 percent); Vermont (108 percent); Virginia (100 percent); and Washington (107 percent).

The 12 states that could be at 75 percent to 99 percent of hospital bed capacity are: Colorado (88 percent); Florida (80 percent); Georgia (78 percent); Maine (83 percent); Michigan (79 percent); New Hampshire (84 percent); New Mexico (93 percent); North Carolina (95 percent); Pennsylvania (77 percent): South Carolina (93 percent); Utah (83 percent); and Wisconsin (75 percent).

The estimates were created using the FluSurge model developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The country's much more prepared than we were a few short years ago for a pandemic, but there are some long-term underlying problems which complicate response efforts, like surge capacity and the need to modernize core public health areas like communications and surveillance capabilities," Jeff Levi, executive director at Trust for America's Health, said in a news release.

Among the other findings in the report:

  • Vaccinating the entire population against H1N1 will require a much larger effort than what states and communities have managed in the past for seasonal flu vaccinations.
  • H1N1 flu pandemic preparedness efforts are being hampered by budget cuts and layoffs in states and communities. In the first half of 2009, local health departments cut about 8,000 staff positions. In 2008, an estimated 7,000 public health jobs were eliminated. From 2005 to 2009, federal public health preparedness funding was slashed by 25 percent.
  • Nearly half of private sector workers don't have sick leave benefits. That means millions of people will have to choose between losing their jobs by not going to work if they're sick or going to work and contaminating others.
  • If 35 percent of the U.S. population becomes infected with H1N1 flu, about 15 million of the 47 million uninsured Americans could become sick and either go without care or seek treatment in already crowded emergency departments.
  • Because they suffer from more underlying chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to develop severe cases of H1N1 swine flu. But there are major deficiencies in systems designed to reach minority communities. For example, emergency preparedness information is often disseminated on the Internet, but many people don't have access to the Web. In addition, there is limited availability of non-English information.

The report offered recommendations for improving the nation's ability to deal with the upcoming H1N1 swine flu season, including:

  • Make risk communication a top priority. Special efforts are needed to encourage vaccination in at-risk groups such as young adults and minorities. This should include messages in many languages.
  • Refine plans for rapid distribution and administration of vaccines.
  • Vaccination campaigns must continue past the fall, to prepare for a potential third-wave outbreak.
  • Establish an emergency health benefit to care for the uninsured and under-insured and provide an emergency sick leave benefit for workers without sick leave benefits.
  • Public and private insurers should waive co-payments for H1N1 vaccines and out-of-network care for people sick with H1N1 swine flu.
  • Health professionals and health departments should develop and distribute public messages about good hygiene practices and how to understand H1N1 flu symptoms and remedies.

More information

The World Health Organization has more about H1N1 flu.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Trust for America's Health, news release, Oct. 1, 2009

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