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Hospitals and CDC in turmoil at height of flu epidemic

As the flu cripples the US, the nation’s epidemic war room the CDC is facing debilitating uncertainty in the wake of the government shutdown on Friday night.

Last week, California and Alabama both declared states of emergencies for their flu epidemics, hospitals across the country reported IV, antiviral, staff and bed shortages, and 85 otherwise healthy adults and 20 children have died of the flu.

Now, much of the staff that has been tracking the epidemic at the CDC and treating cases as the NIH is furloughed until legislators can reach a budget agreement. 

The Senate has passed a stopgap measure, but, with 70 people dying a week of flu, every hour until Congress signs off and the CDC can resume its regular activities could cost more American lives.

Nearly 65 percent of the CDC’s staff was placed on furlough following Friday’s government shutdown, tying the hands of government scientists that have been working to monitor and advise US hospitals how to cope with this year’s aggressive strain 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been closely monitoring and distributing critical information about the flu’s spread across the country since this year’s outbreak began in October.

This year’s particularly aggressive H3N2 strain of flu and only moderately effective vaccine have kept the CDC busy for the last several months.

Last week, California hospitals, where triage tents have been set up in parking lots to try to cope with the influx of flu patients, drew comparisons to war zones.

The CDC’s headquarters were shuttered Wednesday and Thursday of last week due to widespread illness and bad weather in Atlanta, Georgia, adding to the nationwide flu panic.

After a brief reopening on Friday, the agency is now hobbled by the government shutdown, which began at midnight after legislators failed to pass a stopgap bill on the federal budget.

Now, 63 percent of the CDC’s staff has put placed on furlough, a temporary work suspension, amid what experts speculate may be the height of the flu epidemic.

That means that 42,203 out of its 82,148 employees are currently not allowed to go to work, and that could extend further to any workers deemed ‘nonessential’ buy the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as the shutdown goes on. 

During the 2013 government shutdown, the number of employees furloughed reached a peak of 850,000.  

During a press conference on Saturday, director of the Office of Management and Budget Rick Mulvaney said that the CDC would continue its ‘immediate response work,’ in spite of the shutdown.

But, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contingency plan, it will do so ‘through a significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations, processing of laboratory samples, and maintaining the agency’s 24/7 emergency operations center.’ 

As for its flu response, the contingency plan promises that ‘to continue ongoing influenza surveillance, CDC would collect data being reported by states, hospitals, and others, and report out critical information needed for state and local health authorities and providers to track, prevent and treat the disease.’ 

As of Friday afternoon, the CDC seemed to be in a time-crunched scramble, according to reports from Vox.

Staffers at the agency told Vox that they didn’t know until after six pm whether or not they would be furloughed.

The CDC tweeted earlier today that it would no longer be updating the spread of the flu, one of its key functions during this year's epidemic 

The CDC tweeted earlier today that it would no longer be updating the spread of the flu, one of its key functions during this year’s epidemic 

After the midnight shutdown, employees were told to come to work for a half day on Monday to sort out anything pressing before the furlough went into full effect.

The CDC’s media personnel are out on furlough, and it announced on Twitter this morning that ‘CDC will not be posting updates, monitoring or responding to comments on this account during the government shutdown.’ 

In spite of the contingency’s promises, evidence gathered from the 2013 government shutdown suggests that health agencies falter significantly while many of their employees are on furlough.  

Following that shutdown, former CDC director David Satcher wrote in a Bloomberg article that the nation had to base its ‘disease detection and response strategy on luck.’

Furloughs also mean that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is left shorthanded, and unable to conduct inspections that insure food safety. 

Unsafe food and unsanitary conditions could add an additional risk of flu transmission to an already highly-virulent epidemic.  

Experts estimated that at least a month’s worth of data was incomplete at best.  

During government shutdowns, the National Institutes of Health do not accept new patients, ‘unless deemed medically necessary by the NIH Director,’ the contingency plan says. 

The shutdown of the two health centers combined means that patients are going untreated, and crucial work to analyze the this year’s flu strain could undermine the US’s ability to not only fight the current epidemic, but prepare a better vaccine for next year. 

Hospitals around the country rely on the guidance, supplies and support of federal agencies, especially during dangerous epidemics like the flu. 

The shutdown leaves the CDC, NIH and all US hospitals in a shroud of mystery during an already elusive flu season.