Boston, Mass. - Massachusetts hospitals overwhelmed by incoming flu patients will be able to waive procedural steps to open new, temporary facilities under rules implemented Saturday when President Obama declared a state of emergency.
"If they needed to set up an additional location to screen patients with H1N1 symptoms outside of the emergency room setting, this would allow them to do that without having to go through the additional procedures," Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach told the News Service in a phone interview. "There are certain facilities licensed for a certain number of beds.
This would give them some flexibility."
Auerbach emphasized that any facility seeking to expand or waive regulations would still be subject to a state and federal review, but without a state of emergency, he said, such waivers wouldn't be possible at all. The commissioner spoke to the News Service after Gov.
Deval Patrick held a late afternoon press conference on short notice Tuesday.
According to the latest Department of Public Health statistics, 1,436 cases of swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, have been confirmed in Massachusetts since April. Auerbach said Obama's emergency declaration was a reaction to a noticeable uptick in "illness related to H1N1."
Forty-six states, including Massachusetts, have reported "widespread" flu-like activity, as swine flu continues to spread and the annual seasonal flu begins to take hold, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Auerbach added that the trends being observed around the country were happening in Massachusetts as well.
"We're seeing reports of increased H1N1 illness in the state. We see that in a number of different ways," he said. "We have regular monitoring of certain sites around the state where people report if they have influenza-like illness … We see more people coming into emergency departments reporting influenza-like illness."
The commissioner said a pending bill to enhance DPH's powers during disasters and public health emergencies would likely have little effect on the H1N1 virus.
"That legislation is really designed much more for a Katrina-like emergency, or an emergency that has a much greater impact on the ability of society to function in a normal manner," he said.
"At this stage, we don't envision that the H1N1 outbreak will rise to the level requiring the use of the steps envisioned in that legislation."
The legislation, promoted for years by lawmakers as a pandemic flu preparation proposal, is pending before a six-member House-Senate conference committee.
Auerbach said a full accounting of the number of people with H1N1 in Massachusetts would be impossible, since many people's symptoms are mild and don't require reporting or lab testing to confirm. He said most people wouldn't notice a change in their daily lives because of the heightened state of emergency declared by the White House.