Federal Times Blogs

Colbert to Napolitano: ‘Does the Secret Service have clipboard technology?’

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For your Friday enjoyment, faux TV pundit Stephen Colbert ribs Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the White House gate crashers, al Qaida, immigration enforcement and swine flu:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Janet Napolitano
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

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Can you tell me how to prevent the spread of swine flu?

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For 40 years Sesame Street has been teaching children their letters and numbers, but this year the residents of the famed street are teaching kids a new lesson: how to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, better known as swine flu.

The White House, the Homeland Security Department, the Health and Human Services Department and the Education Department have teamed with the makers of Sesame Street to produce four public service announcements to teach children and families healthy habits that will prevent the spread of the potentially deadly virus. The PSAs can be viewed at www.flu.gov.

The 20-second spots feature Gordon and Elmo talking about topics as how to wash your hands and how to sneeze into your elbow.

Of the spots, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said:

Younger children and their parents are some of the people most at risk from the new H1N1 flu virus and with schools starting back up again and the weather starting to get colder, we need to do everything we can to get these important messages about how to prevent the spread of the flu out there.”

This FedLine blogger’s Sesame Street experience predates Elmo, but I understand he’s pretty popular with the preschool set, so perhaps this will be an effective campaign. But to add authority, I think the spots should have included a visit from the one and only Dr. Grover.

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Congress to consider $2 billion for swine flu

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The House Appropriations Committee will consider this week allocating more than $2 billion for combating H1N1, also known as swine flu.

President Barack Obama announced last week he wanted Congress to provide $1.5 billion to respond to the illness, which has sickened more than 1,000 worldwide. House Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey, D-Wisc., said Monday he wants to add an additional $350 million for state and local aid.

We have to be ready at the community level. There have been 11,000 public health layoffs at state and local public health departments in the last few years. That hurts our readiness status.”

He also wants to provide an additional $200 million to support global flu tracking and containment efforts, which will be available to government and non-governmental organizations. Money will be used for surveillance as well as for purchasing of anti-viral medications, he said.

The committee will take up the spending measures Thursday, Obey said, as part of the $94.2 billion supplemental bill for Iraq and Afghanistan appropriations. The bill is $9.3 billion over the White House’s request, Obey said.

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Why not close the borders?

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I’ve done a lot of swine flu reporting this week, and one question that keeps coming up is why DHS doesn’t just close the Mexican border. Congress has held a few swine flu hearings; someone invariably asks this same question at each hearing.

Let me take a stab at answering it, based on conversations I’ve had this week with scientists and doctors and other people much smarter than I am.

First, a little history. The chart on the right (courtesy of Wikipedia) shows the spread of the Black Plague through Europe in the 14th century. You can see the disease started along the Mediterranean coast and then moved across the continent in bands. It’s a fairly straightforward progression, moving slowly across Eastern Europe and into Russia.

This is how pandemics used to spread. They were limited because people didn’t travel much; when they did, they traveled short distances, and only as fast as their horse could move. So in those days there might have been some benefit to closing borders.

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Swine flu and flexible hiring

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Steve Losey linked to some OPM guidance on swine flu this morning. One other point to make from my reporting… I’ve talked to a few feds today about their swine flu responses, and they keep mentioning the hiring flexibilities that OPM grants during emergency situations: direct hire authority for doctors and nurses, 120-day temporary contracts to fill vacancies if an employee gets sick, etc.

Obviously the disease hasn’t affected federal agencies yet, and nobody’s sure if it will, but it’s worth being prepared.

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WH defends swine flu response

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Not having a secretary of Health and Human Services isn’t hurting the federal response to the swine flu outbreak, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs Monday.

“Our response is in no way hindered or hampered by not having a permanent secretary at HHS right now,” Gibbs said after a reporter asked how the agency is faring.

Gibbs said he hopes the Senate will act quickly to confirm Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the nominee for HHS secretary. The Senate has scheduled debate on her nomination for Tuesday with a vote possibly later in the day.

Gibbs said interagency coordination for flu outbreaks and other public health issues is entrusted to the Homeland Security Department, headed by Janet Napolitano.

Gibbs credits the career staff at HHS agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, for helping with the response to swine flu, which has sickened more than 40 in the United States and more than 26 in Mexico.

“There are professional staff over there as we speak helping to coordinate this. I’m sure many of you all have called public affairs over there and gotten your questions answered … we feel confident with the team that is there now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Congress has already scheduled oversight hearings on swine flu and the federal response. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a 10 a.m. Wednesday hearing, while the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health has a 10 a.m. Thursday hearing.

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OPM: Watch out for swine flu

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The Office of Personnel Management is warning agencies to be prepared in case swine flu hits their area. An April 26 memo from OPM Director John Berry tells managers that employees might become sick or have to care for family members who contract swine flu, and reminds them of the government’s various sick leave and family care policies.

And for employees at agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration or Customs and Border Protection – who could come into contact with travelers who may have contracted swine flu — the memo also includes advice on how to manage such encounters. OPM recommends that when a traveler is coughing, showing signs of a fever, or other symptoms that could indicate swine flu:

  • Separate that individual to a private room or other area that is at least six feet away from employees and the public.
  • After separating the traveler from others, notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantine station.
  • Give the ill traveler a surgical mask to keep him from infecting others.
  • If possible, isolate the ill traveler in a room separate from the airspace of others.

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