Flu cases are continuing to rise in the U.S., with some states, such as California, seeing record numbers of patients seeking medical attention. And public health experts say that the looming government shutdown could hobble states’ efforts to anticipate and prepare for patients seeking emergency care.
So far, 30 deaths of children have been linked to flu, and almost 9,000 people have been hospitalized with the flu. All states except for Hawaii are reporting widespread flu activity, with 32 states reporting high flu activity.
In the event that Congress doesn’t come to an agreement to fund the government, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contingency plan involves pulling support from the CDC’s annual influenza program. This funds federal lab analysis that identifies flu strains to pinpoint the best course of treatment, as well as to identify flu subtypes to help guide the vaccines that will go into the next season’s shot.
The CDC also compiles weekly reports that summarize the state of the flu epidemic in the U.S., noting the number and locations of likely cases and pediatric flu deaths.
All of these numbers and more help people like Dr. Lisa Maragakis, the senior director of Infection Prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System, prepare supplies and staffing for the incoming wave of patients, she explained.
“Having those numbers really informs us about our own preparedness and hospital operations,” said Maragakis. “It would definitely impact us if those activities were to stop.”
Making matters worse is that this year’s government shutdown would also take place at the peak of flu season in the U.S., when physicians all around the country are constantly checking the numbers to see when the cases are going to decrease. The flu season generally starts in October and peaks between December and February.
“This is the time of the year where we pay close attention to the weekly data,” Maragakis said. “We do rely on the national surveillance data being available so we can track this epidemic and understand if we’ve reached a turning point where disease starts to decline.”
“I hope that they keep [the government] open,” she added.
The government shutdown would also affect not just the current flu season, but our ability to prepare for next year’s epidemic, said Richard Webby, a member of the Infectious Diseases Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Twice a year, Webby and other experts gather at the World Health Organization Influenza Vaccine Composition Meeting to examine data from the previous flu season and determine which vaccine strains should be part of next season’s shot.
“The CDC, in their influenza division, will be frantically characterizing and collecting viruses and gathering information to inform that decision,” said Webby. “Any slowdown of that process is not a good thing.”
Of course, the CDC is in charge of many more public health initiatives beyond monitoring flu cases. It provides support and technical assistance to state and local health departments for monitoring infectious disease in general. It also runs prevention programs for non-infectious diseases and monitors research to make sure its recommendations for treatment and prevention of diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis are up to date. It also monitors food-borne illness outbreaks across state lines. All of these efforts would wind down during a shutdown, according to the HHS’s contingency plan in the event of a funding-related furlough.
The last time the federal government shut down was on Oct. 1, 2013. At the time, public health experts were worried about what the lack of data would do to state departments’ response to the flu, but it turned out that there had been little information to report anyway since the shutdown happened at the start of the flu season and lasted 16 days.