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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 10, 2005
Press Gaggle After Avian Flu Tabletop Exercise with Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend, Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff
12:45 P.M. EST
MS. TOWNSEND: Good afternoon, everyone. As you know, the Cabinet, this morning -- members of the Cabinet conducted an exercise related to the nation's preparedness to deal with a pandemic flu event. The President has made perfectly clear that our number-one priority, in the event of a pandemic, is to save lives. The President has a plan to do just that. He's released his national strategy for safeguarding against a pandemic flu. That plan includes a $7.1 billion request for emergency funding from Congress.
What we've learned today, as we -- as the President has said, is the most important part of that strategy will be vaccines and antivirals, and that is the bulk of what that funding is for. We urge Congress to fully fund the President's strategy to be implemented.
I should be clear that we currently have no evidence that a pandemic flu in this country is imminent. That said, we are fairly warned, and the time to prepare for that pandemic is now. That involves all levels of government: federal, state and local, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, the media. We all must be prepared and we all have a role to play in the nation's preparation.
Secretary Leavitt, this week, hosted a conference of state public health officials, and he'll be traveling to each of the 50 states to meet with public health officials and discuss preparedness. Secretary Rice, at the State Department, is spearheading the international partnership to ensure that we are fully knitted up at all levels of government and internationally, as well as private and individual citizens.
The key for individuals is education. And I'd like to talk about that for a moment. This is the time to go -- if you haven't gotten your annual flu shot, you might think about doing that this year. That's part of your individual preparedness plan. You want to educate yourself by going to the website, pandemicflu.gov.
We each have a role to play. I'm a mother -- I've got two small boys -- and you can be sure I take this seriously, as I'm sure all Americans do. You have a responsibility to make sure that you are informed so you can best prepare your family.
Now, we can take a couple of questions, and I have the secretaries here to help.
Q Fran, can you talk about exactly what happened today and how -- what you guys went through -- the drill you went through showed some of the problems that still remain?
MS. TOWNSEND: Let me say this, we're not going to go into the specifics of it. You know, the exercises are just that. It's a drill, it's meant to test -- it's meant to push federal resources to the breaking point and to ensure that we're prepared, that we identify gaps and then we plan to fill them. We accomplished that this morning.
Q How many gaps did you find?
Q -- what worked and what didn't?
MS. TOWNSEND: What you do is you walk through a fact set and you identify options, and then what you want to do is go back and make sure that -- do each of the federal agencies have plans to fill those gaps? And quite frankly, I think we did quite well. But the thing that we take away from it, more than anything, is the role that state and local governments would play. This is not going to be a federal answer to the problem. Federal government has got a support role to play, but frankly, I think, really, very important, is the state and local efforts that Secretary Leavitt is spearheading.
Q But were they involved in this at all, state and local officials?
MS. TOWNSEND: This is an opportunity to test the federal preparedness and understand what the connection is for our support with state and local government.
Q -- federal preparedness -- there was a congressional report that came out Friday that said the government was not prepared -- did not, on the medical side of things, set up field hospitals, and basically, the whole medical front. There were a lot of issues. And it was bungled, is what some people referred to it as. What's your response to that whole -- that whole accusation by this report that came out Friday?
MS. TOWNSEND: There's been a great deal of planning for preparedness in just that area. I've not seen the report, so I wouldn't comment on it specifically.
Q Could we hear from the two secretaries on how you thought things went today?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: This was a valuable exercise. I will tell you that maybe even of greater value was what happened in the last week-and-a-half as we prepared for it. It has moved us thinking deeper in preparing.
What became evident was the need for a comprehensive plan. We need to have a surveillance plan that allows us to identify when an incident has occurred in the world. The sooner we know, the more quickly and more adequately we can respond. We need to have a domestic surveillance system; when it happens in the United States, having the capacity to know what's occurring within the health care system is of vital importance. Antivirals -- we talked at length about how we would deal with the fact that we don't have an unlimited supply. Vaccines -- a very important part, something that we'll have a limited constraint of for a few years, but more importantly, we have -- we lack the capacity in this country to manufacture the number of courses needed to give everyone a vaccine. That's why the President has proposed this $7.1 billion plan to revitalize that industry.
But as was previously stated, state and local governments, state and local communities, schools need to have a plan, businesses need to have a plan, faith organizations need to have a plan, local officials need to understand. The public health community understands a pandemic; they understand the dangers of a pandemic. It's now time to engage a broader community so that we have a true nationwide response effort that's not only planned, but exercised and ready.
Q Why was the President not involved in this today?
MS. TOWNSEND: I think it's -- the President knows pretty clearly what his role is, and what this exercise was about was testing federal roles and the interagency coordination.
Q Secretary Chertoff, did you want to say something?
SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I was just going to add the fact that this is really about planning and putting capabilities in place. This is not something that we're saying is around the corner tomorrow, but it is something we have an opportunity to get ahead of. And if everybody at all levels of government takes the opportunity, we will put ourselves in a position to be ready if and when we have some kind of an outbreak.
Thanks a lot.
Q Is communication the biggest gap between the federal and state officials?
SECRETARY CHERTOFF: One more.
Q Given that you're going on the road next week.
SECRETARY LEAVITT: This is a time for us to be informing but not inflaming. It's a time for us to inspire preparation but not panic. We have time to become the first generation, literally, in the history of man to do something to be prepared for a pandemic. Pandemics happen. They've happened in the past, they'll happen in the future. This is about being ready for what inevitably will come. We're quite concerned now about this H5N1 virus as scientists suggest that it could, in fact, mutate into a virus of major concern. So we need to be ready.
Q Surveillance -- you mentioned the need for surveillance. Is that in the works or --
SECRETARY LEAVITT: It's actually expanding rapidly.
MS. TOWNSEND: Thank you.
END 12:53 P.M. EST