President Barack Obama declared the 2009 H1N1 swine flu a national emergency on Saturday, October 24.
The declaration will make it easier for U.S. medical facilities to handle a surge of flu patients by allowing them to waive some Medicaid and federal health insurance program rules if needed, the White House said in a statement.
It will allow waivers of federal requirements that could , for example, prevent hospitals from establishing off-site, alternate care facilities that could help deal with emergency department demands.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 46 of 50 states have reported widespread swine flu infections. The number of infections is already comparable to the peak of ordinary flu seasons with even more to be expected. Over 1000 deaths have been linked to the virus. The illness has put another 20,000 people in the hospital.
Seasonal flu typically peaks in late November and early March. While seasonal flu poses the most danger to people 65 and older, swine flu has hit children and young adults the hardest.
President Obama signed the declaration to help health care agencies respond to a possible worsening of the pandemic. Officials say the declaration is similar to ones issued before hurricanes hit coastal regions. According to the White House, the declaration was intended to prepare the country in case of “a rapid increase in illness that may overburden health care resources."