Friday, October 30, 2009

Have Cases of H1N1 Virus Been Wildly Overestimated?

Remember this? People standing in the rain for hours to get their H1N1 flu shot? Remember Obama, declaring a NATIONAL EMERGENCY a week or so ago? Well . . .it turns out that maybe we still have a journalist or two left in this country, willing to ask questions and chase down a story.

On the Couric (Katie Couric) and Co. blog of all places--CBS News--Sharyl Attkisson posted this about her efforts to discover the thinking behind why the CDC decided to stop testing individual cases of H1N1 virus. Writes Attkisson: When the public affairs folks at CDC refused to produce the documents and quit responding to my queries altogether, I filed a formal Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the materials. Members of the news media are entitled to expedited access. . .

Attkisson says that on Oct. 27 she finally received a reply from the CDC Freedom of Information Office, which by even the normal baffling standards, borders on the absurd. The letter is to inform me that my request for "expedited" treatment of my FOI request has been denied because the CDC has determined the request 'not a matter of widespread and exceptional media and public interest.'

Another CBS report gives background on Attkisson's post: In July, the CDC advised states to stop testing for H1N1 flu and also stopped counting individual cases. The rationale: why waste resources testing for H1N1 when the government has already confirmed there's an epidemic?

That statement made me think of Alice in Wonderland and Alice's conversations with the Cheshire Cat.

Cheshire Cat: Oh, by the way, if you'd really like to know, he went that way.
Alice: Who did?
Cat: The White Rabit.
Alice: He did?
Cat: He did what?
Alice: Went that way.
Cat: Who did?
Alice: The White Rabit.
Cat: What rabbit?
Alice: But didn't you just say - I mean - Oh, dear.
Cat: Can you stand on your head?

The CBS report says that when they couldn't get the state-by-state statistics from the CDC, they asked each state for their own statistics on lab confirmed H1N1 prior to the halt of individual testing and counting in July. What they found "reveals a pattern" that indicates the number of actual H1N1 cases may have been "wildly inflated." Here is their graphic:

In her blog post, Attkisson listed a phone number for the CDC for those who want to let the CDC know that they believe it is a matter of public interest: CDC Officer Lynn Armstrong or Katherine Norris: 404-639-7270. I called that number and since I'm not a member of the media, I was given an 800 number which started out, "Press 1 for English." Finally I was able to talk to a human, name of Andrea, who seemed to have a hard time understanding my point--which was, please let the proper person at the CDC know that it's absurd for a reporter to be told that her FOI request about H1N1 is not a matter of widespread public interest. Andrea wanted to answer her own question, which was: "Why does the CDC no longer test for H1N1 virus?" That one she evidently had a printed answer for, which she gave me three times: "It's not up to the CDC to test for H1N1 virus; it's up to the individual doctor, based on your health and travel history, to decide whether you should be tested." I must admit to going off point when I heard that answer for the third time and I said to Andrea: "Are you nuts? The President has declared a NATIONAL EMERGENCY. This is the CDC we're talking about. They tell the doctors what to do EVERY DAY. What is the protocol for testing during a National Emergency? Who is letting you answer the phone, pretending to answer taxpayers' questions?

At that point, Andrea seemed at a loss. I'm thinking maybe she has a list of certain words that flip her into "go find the supervisor" mode, and "protocol" is one of them; maybe "pretend" is another. So Andrea put me on hold, and after two minutes the line went dead. Our tax dollars at work.

Evidently doublespeak is a fluent language at the CDC. Watch this video of Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC, dance around the reporter's question about obtaining information on numbers of H1N1 cases on a state-by-state basis. This was on September 19.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

My CDC phone buddy Andrea cheerfully suggested (this was at the beginning of our conversation--at the end she wasn't quite so enthusiastic) that I visit the CDC website, which I did. Here's perhaps the most useless graphic evah, published by the CDC about weekly "influenza" (notice they don't elaborate, H1N1 or "other" seasonal influenza data) estimates on a state-by-state basis. There's a little note at the bottom:  *"This map indicates geographic spread and does not measure the severity of influenza activity." Right. Because the CDC DOESN'T HAVE THAT DATA.

So does it matter that we don't really know the numbers for H1N1 Flu cases? As I asked in a previous post, is the CDC just making up numbers? Will they use computer models to tell us the "catastrophic" results of H1N1? From the CBS report:  With most cases diagnosed solely on symptoms and risk factors, the H1N1 flu epidemic may seem worse than it is. Call me cynical, but I wonder if that isn't the point, coming from this administration. Rahm Emanuel: Never let a good crisis go to waste. Why does this sound almost exactly like the bogus counting of jobs "created or saved"?

Oh, and P.S. I still haven't gotten my H1N1 flu shot and don't intend to; with stories like these, it's seeming like a better decision all the time. You have to make your own decision: this post isn't an endorsement of whether or not a particular individual should get an H1N1 flu shot.

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