WASHINGTON - President Obama declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency, giving his health chief the power to let hospitals move emergency rooms offsite to speed treatment and protect noninfected patients.
The declaration, signed Friday night and announced yesterday, was made as the disease becomes more prevalent in the country and production delays undercut the government’s initial optimistic estimates that as many as 120 million doses of the vaccine could be available by mid-October.
Health authorities say more than 1,000 people in the United States, including almost 100 children, have died from the flu, known as H1N1, and 46 states have widespread flu activity.
Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts said at a press conference yesterday evening that the federal declaration was a precautionary measure and that state and local officials and hospitals in the Bay State had been coordinating to prepare in the event of a significant increase in the number of H1N1 cases.
“This is not a reason for alarm,’’ he said. “It permits hospitals and other healthcare providers essentially to cut through some of the federal regulations in the event that there is a surge in emergency rooms or in hospitals and so forth.’’
Patrick said that federal production of an H1N1 vaccine is back on track after an initial slowdown and that the state has already received about 300,000 doses, distributing them first to the most vulnerable.
So far, only 11 million doses have gone out to health departments, doctor’s offices, and other providers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Obama administration officials said the declaration was a preemptive move designed to make decisions easier when they need to be made. Officials said the move was not in response to any single development.
Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services chief, now has the authority to bypass federal rules when opening alternative care sites, such as offsite hospital centers at schools or community centers if hospitals seek permission.
Some hospitals have opened drive-thrus and drive-up tent clinics to screen and treat swine flu patients. The idea is to keep infectious people out of regular emergency rooms and away from other sick patients.
Hospitals could modify patient rules - for example, requiring them to give less information during a hectic time - to quicken access to treatment, with government approval, under the declaration.
It also addresses the question of reimbursement to hospitals for treating people at sites not typically approved. For instance, federal rules do not allow hospitals to put up treatment tents more than 250 yards away from the doors; if the tents are 300 yards or more away, typically federal dollars won’t go to pay for treatment.
In his weekly radio and Internet address yesterday, Obama said too many small businesses remain unable to get credit despite administration steps to jump-start lending.
“These are the very taxpayers who stood by America’s banks in a crisis, and now it’s time for our banks to stand by creditworthy small businesses and make the loans they need to open their doors, grow their operations, and create new jobs,’’ Obama said.
“It’s time for those banks to fulfill their responsibility to help ensure a wider recovery, a more secure system, and more broadly shared prosperity.’’