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In a flu pandemic, what can the government do to you?

A report by the Centers for Disease Control, released Tuesday, raises concern about Washington’s potential response to the H1N1 virus.

By Staff writer / August 25, 2009

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, speaks with school children at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Washington, after speaking at a news conference about the H1N1 virus, on Monday.

Jacquelyn Martin/ AP



What might life be like during the kind of major swine flu pandemic predicted by the White House to hit the US this fall?

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The worst-case scenarios percolate on the edges of thought: bans on public gatherings, restricting the movement of afflicted individuals, and compelled vaccinations. Conspiracy theorists go farther, suggesting that the World Health Organization is behind a secret plan to inoculate Americans at gunpoint with immune-system depleting vaccines to depopulate the globe.

The CDC’s report, released Monday, may well create some level of hysteria. It said 1.8 million Americans could become seriously ill this fall and as many as 90,000 could die.

In truth, America’s national pandemic response plan has been shaped by lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which killed millions globally and did include gun-point quarantines. If the circumstances are deemed dire enough, the government’s “Pandemic Influenza Plan” allows for strong measures, such as banning public gatherings and calling in the military to help with law enforcement.

Yet the far greater concern for public-health officials right now is more mundane: trying to make sure that there is enough vaccine to meet demand – and that there are enough healthcare professionals on hand to handle a potential influx of patients.

The Department of Health and Human Services has fast-tracked production of a vaccine, but it will not have 120 million doses ready by the expected peak of the season, as it had hoped. Forty-five million doses will be available in mid-October, with 20 million more available each week afterward.

Massachusetts public-health officials, for instance, are urging nearly 90 percent of residents to get vaccinated.

The government's powers

In the event of a health crisis, the federal government has broad powers. New rules enacted by the Bush administration include swine flu among quarantinable communicable diseases. For its part, the Obama administration is also reportedly reviewing proposals to strengthen three-decade-old federal quarantine policies, including, according to some reports, presidential power to impose a six-day quarantine on those affected by swine flu. The Department of Health and Human Services has asked the Pentagon to assist local health officials in the event of a pandemic.