Mayo: CDC furloughs hurt nation's ability to prep for flu season

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The Mayo Clinic says doctors are deeply concerned that the partial government shutdown is hurting the nation's preparations for the flu season, which is newly under way.

Specifically, physicians are worried about how the shutdown is curbing operations at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's because the CDC is the only agency that tracks flu activity in all 50 states in real time, gathering up data that is key to creating effective new batches of vaccines, Mayo officials say.

About 9,000 of the CDC’s nearly 13,000 workers are on furlough.

So no one at the CDC is producing its weekly “FluView" report, among other tracking tools, that public health officials and doctors need to track whether flu is circulating heavily, and where, NBC News reported. FluView documents the number of flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide, based on data culled by the CDC from 2,700 outpatient health-care providers, labs, hospitals, and other sources nationwide.

A memo prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that the CDC would be "unable to support the annual seasonal influenza program" during the shutdown, UPI reported.

"Flu season is under way, but how many Americans have been hit so far, how badly, and which influenza bugs are to blame is unclear. That information is important to prevent and manage outbreaks, and it is crucial for creation of the next batch of influenza vaccines," Mayo said in a statement.

Mayo offers an eye-opening Q and A with Mayo Clinic infectious diseases expert Gregory Poland, M.D., who says the CDC is the only entity in the U.S. tracking infectious diseases globally and nationally.

"So now you've got a week, two weeks, who knows how long, where there's no one really responsible for watching what's happening nationally," Poland says in the Q and A. "What kinds of diseases are we looking at? We're starting influenza season, there are measles and rubella outbreaks occurring in the world, polio, enterovirus, the coronavirus that we've seen out of the Middle East, avian influenza. There are an endless number of infectious disease threats that, as we often say, are an airplane ride away from us. Who's going to monitor this over this time period?"

But state health officials are not in a panic, although they acknowledge the shutdown presents a setback for analyzing the flu, WCCO reports.

“That means it will take, I think, a little bit longer for us to determine what are the predominant circulating strains. We need that information to know if the vaccine is going to hold up as a good vaccine,” Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz said at a news conference Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal reports that one private firm, athenaResearch, a unit of athenahealth Inc. in Watertown, Mass., has stepped into the void in an attempt to provide national flu data.

You can see its latest data here – and the news so far is pretty good, the company says – only about 4.4 out of 10,000 patients who have been visiting doctors were diagnosed with the flu, which means there's been no outbreak yet.

“We were uncomfortable with the prospect of no national surveillance,” company vice president Josh Gray told the Journal. “It’s going dark at a critical period when flu is starting to ramp up.”

Mayo has more information on the flu, as well as info on vaccines for this season's strains.

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