Obama describes how U.S. 'wasn't at all ready' for H1N1 pandemic

President Obama, forer HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and former Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Much of former President Barack Obama's time in office is defined by his fight to enact the Affordable Care Act. But he also dealt with the swine flu pandemic — and it taught him a lot about letting experts take the reins, he details in an excerpt of his memoir published Monday in The New Yorker.

In April 2009, after Obama's first year in office, he received reports of "a worrying flu outbreak in Mexico" that turned out to be a strain of H1N1. Obama had experience with the virus from working on pandemic preparedness in the Senate, and "what I knew scared the hell out of me," Obama wrote. A strain of H1N1 known as the Spanish flu that spread in 1918 killed millions and shut down the economy — not unlike today's COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2009, "it was too early to tell how deadly this new virus would be. But I wasn't interested in taking any chances," Obama writes. He rounded up a team of top government medical experts, and concluded "we weren't at all ready" for "a worst-case scenario," Obama wrote.

But scrambling to solve the pandemic with a vaccine wasn't advisable either, members of the Ford administration's team warned Obama. "Apparently, President Ford ... had fast-tracked vaccinations," leading to more Americans contracting a "neurological disorder connected to the vaccine than died from the flu," Obama recalled. "'You need to be involved, Mr. President,' one of Ford’s staffers advised, 'but you need to let the experts run the process,'" Obama concluded.

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More than 12,000 Americans ended up dying of H1N1, but what Obama learned during the fight helped him lay the groundwork for stopping Ebola's spread in the U.S. just a few years later. "This, I was coming to realize, was the nature of the presidency: sometimes your most important work involved the stuff nobody noticed," Obama finished. Read more at The New Yorker.

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