Thanks to the bird flu concerns of the past decade, the federal government is actually fairly well prepared for a serious flu outbreak in the United States. A government-wide team was assigned to produce a national strategy for pandemic influenza in 2005, outlined here (I was a member of the group while a White House staffer, but can claim no credit for its very good work—the credit belongs especially to the experts at the CDC), and the Bush administration together with Congress made some serious resources available for preparation and swift response. Those are in place today, and while there’s no avoiding some degree of panic and mismanagement in a crisis, if the outbreak becomes a real pandemic the government has quite a lot at its disposal to respond.
One somewhat disconcerting element of the current outbreak, though, is that the response plan relies to a great degree on the Department of Health and Human Services, and at the moment the department is without a secretary and most of the senior politically appointed positions (including director of the CDC) are vacant. That doesn’t mean HHS is helpless—there are many very capable career officials on the job, and the temporary CDC director, Richard Besser, used to run the agency’s emergency response program and so is just about the best possible acting director for this particular situation. But if things get very serious, it’s hard to dispute that a lack of clear leadership has consequences.
Conversations with a couple of CDC folks today suggest they are comfortable with the support they’ve gotten from the White House so far, but also that they’re genuinely quite alarmed about the outbreak.