Bush Considers Military Role in Flu Fight
October 4, 2005 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Bush Considers Military Role in Flu Fight If the flu (say) breaks out in New Jersey, why not use the New Jersey National Guard. Just what is the guard for? Simply to be sent overseas for our bringing freedom to nations not having what we believe we have?
posted by Postroad (56 comments total)
Nice comment! If the military is to be used it is to isolate pockets of people. That is what Bush is considering. Now do you favor (1) using the National Guard in those areas affected, (2) Using the army in those areas, (3) or being cute in your comments? choose one.
posted by Postroad at 12:26 PM on October 4, 2005

That would be a horrible assignment.
posted by leapingsheep at 12:27 PM on October 4, 2005

If the recent history of this administration is any indication of the effectiveness of their use of the Guard, they'll begin the quarantine about a month after everyone is already dead from it.
posted by inthe80s at 12:29 PM on October 4, 2005

This makes me extra glad I decided against signing up for a flu "shot" at my local super market.

Constipated? Try a bunker buster.
posted by tpl1212 at 12:30 PM on October 4, 2005

If it did break out in New Jersey, I doubt the Feds would use the local (NJ) National Guard. Wouldn't the local members of the the guard, as opposed to the guard from say... Iowa, have conflicting desires ... like saving thier own family in NJ?
posted by R. Mutt at 12:33 PM on October 4, 2005

My great-grandfather was drafted during WWI, he served as a nurse. He also never left the US and never saw a wounded soldier. He was stationed at Mt. Vernon (Washington's home) and worked in a flu epidemic hospital.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:40 PM on October 4, 2005

Take that, posse comitatus!

Seriously, though, why does it seem that Bush is, of late, seemingly heralding the intervention of the military as some sort of magic pill? First after Katrina, and again now. The claim seems to be that the military is better prepared to handle such things, instead of, say, the civilian organizations that are supposed to handle them (like FEMA, in the case of Katrina).

I do wonder why the National Guard wouldn't be considered good enough for something like this, though.
posted by Godbert at 12:42 PM on October 4, 2005

I can see three reasons to use federal troops:

1) Better training and more efficient execution. I don't know enough about the readiness of reserves, but I imagine that local knowledge probably counts for something.

2) Chain of command. If the national interest is seen as trumping state interest (i.e. quarantine hobeken to disease to spare manhattan) then we probably want federal leadership. Involving local layers of organization in a crisis that would require coordination with many different areas should be avoided.

3) Impassive execution. Local troops and officers may be less likely to ignore the means for the ends. From the Little Rock Nine to Tiananmen Square, national authorities have used non-local troops because of potential sympathy from the locals.

This might actually be a reasonable thing to think about now.
posted by allan at 12:44 PM on October 4, 2005

So this is how they plan to end democracy in the US for good. A quarantine. I thought it was odd when WHO started spouting about the end of a the world by a flu that effected only a couple of people world-wide.
Of course the flaw with their idea is that birds can fly, so a quarantine wouldn't mean anything. But thats not the point is it.
posted by Osmanthus at 12:47 PM on October 4, 2005

I do wonder why the National Guard wouldn't be considered good enough for something like ... this?
posted by R. Mutt at 12:48 PM on October 4, 2005

Errr... this?
posted by R. Mutt at 12:54 PM on October 4, 2005

end democracy in the US

foil hat/

Funny how Bush agrees that Katrina is one example of how the army is the better answer, yet he's the one that hobbled FEMA in the first place.
Mebbe he's cutting the Supreme Court off at the knees with a similar goal?

/foil hat
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:56 PM on October 4, 2005

Better training and more efficient execution.

Well, no.

The military is trained to carry out orders and shoot people, not to provide medical assistance in the case of an epidemic. Why not use, you know, doctors?

What is the CDC for? The NIH?

The military is not a swiss-army knife that is the solution for every problem. In fact, the military tends to be the solution for very very few problems.
posted by bshort at 1:02 PM on October 4, 2005

I think you may have gotten confused about the flu we're talking about.

The flu that effected only a couple of people world-wide - so far - has been acquired by humans from birds (often chickens). It is not, so far as we can tell, able to spread in a human-human manner.

However, it has killed something around 50% of those infected. If the human-human mode begins to occur, due to repeated infection/mutation cycles in humans, at that fatality rate, we'll be hoping that the numbers of dead are only measured in millions, not billions.
posted by dash_slot- at 1:04 PM on October 4, 2005

That amount of forward thinking from W is just really surprising and I'm getting suspicious. I fearing the worst.
posted by NewBornHippy at 1:15 PM on October 4, 2005

How about using the CDC? Why do we need troops? How about medical proffessionals instead?

And all this talk of quarantining an entire region seems ludicrous. Why not work on a vaccine instead of making duct tape huts?
posted by destro at 1:16 PM on October 4, 2005

There are lots of diseases that kill more than 50% of thier victims, such as the Hanta virus which is native to the United States. And yet they are already talking about military quarantine for a disease that has killed zero americans?

As far as the CDC is concerned, the bush administration has been trying to cut its funding (google it), the most recent being a bill that cuts spending to pay for katrina, instead of raise taxes.
posted by Osmanthus at 1:21 PM on October 4, 2005

bshort: the military is a source of many able-bodied men and women, generally young and fit, with much useful equipment, trained for rapid deployment, and schooled in the art of following orders. Often said orders are unpleasant and involve lots of rigorous physical activity.

In that light, the National Guard is extremely useful in doing many things stateside aside from killing people. Labor, security, and rescue in disasters are a prime candidate. Enforcing a quarantine might be another.

Given that Bush can't find his ass with two hands and a map, and generally thinks the federal government has no role to play in American society, I doubt we can trust him to use troops in this situation correctly.

But in general, given civilian control of the Guard, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it in such situations. Indeed, it should be one of its primary missions to provide such aid.
posted by teece at 1:27 PM on October 4, 2005

I think if this thing becomes contagious from human to human there isn't going to be much we can do to contain it. People must carry the virus before they show symptoms, and at least before they show symptoms severe enough to know how serious their condition is. Even if they erect a blockade the instant someone is diagnosed (and they couldn't), that person must already have been contagious for x amount of time, and whoever he gave it to will be going about their business...commuting, visiting family across town or across the state or even internationally. Of course they can't just sit back and do nothing, but really, whatever they do will probably not be effective.

Also, say my husband and I are diagnosed with this disease. They know it's contagious because one of us gave it to the other. But they don't know where we got it. Think of how many people we come in contact with in our daily lives. So how big of an area do they close off? Everywhere we've travelled personally? Our whole state? What if we just got back from a trip to California? If this thing becomes highly contagious the whole world is going to look like New Orleans looked a few weeks ago, and there will be little we can do but stay home and wait for it to die down. (Time to buy big sacks of lentils)
posted by leapingsheep at 1:35 PM on October 4, 2005

Instead of dropping hints that we may need to use troops to quarantine infected cities and states (and thus ripping up the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878), there's a much better thing Bush could do to get people ready for a possible probable pandemic. He could be honest that it would take at least six months after the start of a pandemic to make a vaccine. That means six months of quarantine. Not a week, not a month. Six. Stuck in your house. No grocery store trips. If he leveled with people and told them that, I think people would be more willing to stock up on food and stay home, thereby negating the need for troops to enforce a border patrol around an infected area in the first place. If Katrina taught us anything, it's that you can't and shouldn't rely on a government (local, state, federal) to help you. Preparation is key.

Other constructive things Bush and the CDC could be doing right now to get us ready for a pandemic: they could actually finish writing that "draft pandemic plan" they were supposed to have finished months ago. I presume it's not done yet because its release would freak people out. Scotland finished theirs fairly recently, and it openly calls for six months' quarantine for their citizens, cancellation of sporting events and other large events where people could transmit/pick-up the disease, closing the schools, etc. It's not a fun bit of literature.

And yeah, this flu, so far, has a mortality rate of about 55%. And like the 1918-1919 flu, it kills people in the prime of their lives, not just the very old and the very young, who are the typical victims of the "normal" flu. And nobody has any immunity to it (except for the few Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indonesians who got it and survived, but there's maybe less than 100 of them).

And finally, the real worry in a pandemic is not that the military may quarantine you and keep you in a city or in your house. That's actually not so bad, especially if you do have food (and toliet paper) at home. And even if a quarantine doesn't work 100%, it could slow a pandemic spread across the country, though not stop it totally. That buys time for the other millions of people not yet sick, time for doctors to start sequencing the virus and ramping up vaccine production.

No, the real worry is that the troops will try to remove you from your home "for your own good" and take you to a Superdome type of place...now add in one infected-but-asymptomatic person to that Superdome full of "not sick" people and just wait one week...
posted by Asparagirl at 1:41 PM on October 4, 2005

Also, if you're stuck at home for six months and you have huge sacks of lentils (or some other things), you can sprout them and have fresh produce. I am not in the lentil business.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:52 PM on October 4, 2005

The six month until vaccine figure is true, but the way it has been mentioned is hyper-optimistic.

It would be six months before we'd be able to start producing vaccines, right? This is a *bird flu* which means the normal vaccine making techniques do not work anywhere near as well. I've read estimates that between 6x and 24x as many eggs will be needed per dose as normal. Given that number it would take the world's entire vaccine production more than a year to make enough vaccine for the US alone. And that's not even figuring in the coplications that may arise when the chicken farms that produce the vaccine eggs get infected.

The US gets more vaccines from other countries than we make for ourselves... in this case (critically short production) we're screwed as you have to know that foreign producers are going to provide for their own before selling to us.

And have you noticed how we have not had nearly enough flu vaccines for two years already? I recently overheard my doctor yelling at a drug company rep because she was going to be sold 1 dose for every 20 she ordered. Yelling at the rep that "I'm sure that I'll have several geriatric patients die this year if they are not vaccinated."

A six month quarantine, btw, would destroy the banking industry completely (no one is making money, paying rent/mortgage/loans) and bankrupt everyone who is in debt and I have no idea what the fallout from that happening would be, but I'd imagine food riots, no electricity, etc, would be involved. It's hard to look at my 2 year old daughter these days without being crippled with fear.
posted by n9 at 2:41 PM on October 4, 2005

Floo Fighters
posted by kirkaracha at 2:47 PM on October 4, 2005

Did anyone else listen to the press conference and get the feeling that this was a planted question to which Bush responded with a pre-planned answer? The contrast in speaking style between his answer to this question and his answer to previous questions was quite remarkable.
posted by Slothrup at 2:55 PM on October 4, 2005

A 6 month quarantine really won't happen, I don't think. Thinking it will by city planners is very naive. You'd be effectively destroying the people you quarantined, unless you delivered food to their house, subsidized their electricity, gas and water, so that it wasn't shut off. All of those that lived through 6 months would be destitute, as they'd be unemployed and loan-holders would be looking to repossess for non-payment. Bodies would be piling up and need to be burned (supposing that the area was quarantined for good reason). Those quarantined would fight it. etc...

IF you were going to truly quarantine a city, you probably would need the army to enforce it, and you'd have to be willing to slaughter civilians, as many would not stand for it.

It strikes me as completely nonsensical to talk about it. I just don't see anybody having the cold-hearted calculation necessary to sacrifice an entire city for the good of the nation. And it wouldn't work, anyway. But who knows. A disease as deadly as this bird flu in a society like America? Who can say what would happen.
posted by teece at 3:36 PM on October 4, 2005

But teece, legal quarantine has happened in the past in America, as recently as 2003 for SARS (in very small numbers of people, to be fair), and nationwide in 1918-1919. Mostly it was quarantines mandated by the government, but in many cases, small outlying communities banded together and guarded their own communities (with shotguns) to make sure fleeing city dwellers wouldn't come in and infect the town. And the last mass forced innoculation regimen I can think of was the late 1940's in New York, to fight a smallpox outbreak (which, incidentally, went very smoothly). So these kinds of things can and do happen, even here.

Furthermore, there have been published reports in the past few years--mostly geared towards bioterrorism responses, but now also geared towards pandemic quarantine situations--of using the US Post Office to deliver meds and food to people stuck at home. Yes, neither rain nor snow nor sleet not dark of night nor H5N1 will keep those carriers from their appointed rounds--but hopefully they wouldn't be carrying (and spreading) anything else along with the emergency food. Also, local fire department stations have been considered in emergency planning literature as a way to distribute the vaccines (or other biohazard treatment, in a terrorism situation) to a local community.

As for the aftermath--well, basically, people are going to have to become self-sufficient on a scale that my puny raised-in-late-twentieth-century-urban-America mind has trouble thinking about. Victory [over flu] Gardens, anyone?
posted by Asparagirl at 3:56 PM on October 4, 2005

Quarantines and vaccines aside for a moment, the projected mortality rate from H5N1 is probably waaaay overinflated. Less than 100 people have been diagnosed with it and a large percentage of them died. Fine. How many hundreds or thousands of people contracted it and both *didn't* die but also weren't counted among the people who have contracted it?

I'm not saying that H5N1 won't be horrible, but I doubt that it will be as horrible as all the FUD is making it out to be.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:56 PM on October 4, 2005

may i suggest The Plague by Albert Camus, perhaps the best book i ever read.
posted by brandz at 4:24 PM on October 4, 2005

maybe he will go there before during and after it hits, like he did with Rita.
posted by tsarfan at 4:39 PM on October 4, 2005

I have a vague sense that the health department system had an era in which it operated with a military-like system of officers and chain of command. Has this ever been the case, in the US or elsewhere?
posted by troybob at 4:49 PM on October 4, 2005

I might be persuaded to accept a quarantine if, say, Bush and many in Congress die off from it first.

Otherwise, I'm not going to buy it, and will fight anyone trying to enforce it.

Which would be better, to possibly catch the virus and die a horrible diseased death, or to fight for your freedom, and die to an Army bullet, (after taking a toll of them first)?

I'll take my chances, and opt for the bullet.
posted by Balisong at 5:02 PM on October 4, 2005

I'll have to read up on the '18-'19 flu pandemic, Asparagirl.

But it just seems unworkable to me today. A modern city is not even remotely self-sufficient. Life, literally, is brought in from the outside. I can't imagine a mass quarantine being effective against a disease for which there was no cure, and for which their might not be a cure for 6 months (if we're very lucky), or even 2 years or more (if we're not lucky).

But maybe I'm just ignorant: that's entirely possible. It's not like I work at the CDC or something.
posted by teece at 6:06 PM on October 4, 2005

Bush [is] reading a book on the 1918 Spanish flu

Bush reads history? Anyway, I wonder which book.
posted by stbalbach at 7:10 PM on October 4, 2005

I do believe that you are all missing the 'Fear' factor in all of this.
I saw an interview with Bush today where he was being questioned on his latest selection for the supreme court. I am Canadian, so do not follow the details of his choice, but when asked about her opinion on Abortion, he claimed never to have spoken to her about it (Quite an oversight in my opinion), then launched into a ficticious scenario about using the army to contain the Bird flu.
He then proceeded to discuss at length details of this 'shocking' and 'dangerous' scenario. The attention of your media was so easily shifted to the next big threat. They then began to question him on this for the next 20 minutes.
He is employing this tactic to great advantage. How is it possible that you would allow him to go on and on about this ficticious 'Threat' and possible scenarios while allowing him to not answer your questions about why he has not even spoken to a supreme court nominee about abortion?
Not to derail this thread. Please do not take this as an attempt to talk about Abortion. Instead my desire is to point out how the government is using fear to control your attention.
posted by TheFeatheredMullet at 7:23 PM on October 4, 2005

the government is using fear to control your attention.

nothing new.
posted by brandz at 7:27 PM on October 4, 2005

Did anyone else dream of Mother Abigail last night? Here comes Captain Trips!

Did you ever stop to wonder what's been happening to the world's microbiologists?
Could a career in microbiology be harmful to your health?
posted by augustweed at 7:52 PM on October 4, 2005

Did you ever stop to wonder what's been happening to the world's microbiologists?
Could a career in microbiology be harmful to your health?

oh, oh. i do microbiology for a living. cough, cough!
posted by brandz at 8:37 PM on October 4, 2005

I don't understand why people are throwing around this >50% kill rate so much. Don't you think that there are people who have gotten this flu and not been identified because they didn't die? Wikipedia's Spanish Flu article says that worldwide the mortality rate was 2.5-5%, and the infection rate was 20%. That means that the death rate then was 25% tops.
posted by Hubajube at 8:50 PM on October 4, 2005

I'm just glad this administration is thinking about flu at all. They usually don't give a shit until it's way too late.
posted by fungible at 9:27 PM on October 4, 2005

Hubajube (and somebody up-thread): yes, the mortality rate is probably overstated. But it doesn't matter. This flu will kill millions with a 2-5% mortality rate, which is not at all impossible, from what I've read about these things.

A 2.6% mortality rate with the Spanish flu of 1918 killed 40 million. 675,000 died in America from that one. America was much more sparsely populated and less urban then.
posted by teece at 9:54 PM on October 4, 2005

How about using the CDC? Why do we need troops? How about medical proffessionals instead?

The US already has the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service, the smallest of the uniformed services (remember how the Surgeon General gets to wear a uniform? Well, he has a whole bunch of uniformed doctors who work for him, with ranks and epaulets and everything). Indeed, the PHS had its genesis in the Quarantine Act to mobilize federal resources in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. Indeed, the Surgeon General already has legal authority to seize and quarantine persons reasonably believed to be infected and infectious.

In a sense, this was never a brief of the National Guard, so that's a somewhat misleading line of argument. It would be unusual to supplement the PHS with active-duty military, but that's in comparison with the PHS having had prior recourse to other federal law-enforcement such as the US Marshals.
posted by dhartung at 10:16 PM on October 4, 2005

"So this is how they plan to end democracy in the US for good. A quarantine. I thought it was odd when WHO started spouting about the end of a the world by a flu that effected only a couple of people world-wide.
Of course the flaw with their idea is that birds can fly, so a quarantine wouldn't mean anything. But thats not the point is it."

It's not the bird flu they're worried about. Sick birds can only kill a few people. What they're worried about is what happens when the virus mutates to a human transmissible form. Then we're fucked if we don't have a vaccine for it because just getting the flu from someone at the supermarket could very likely end up killing you. That's how 40 million people died in 1918.
posted by muppetboy at 11:50 PM on October 4, 2005

Oddly, this scenario was discussed in the Tom Clancy book "Executive Orders", in which another nation (I think Iran) launches a bioattack with ebola on the United States, spreading it in several convention cities. One of the actions they debate is how to quarrentine the disease, and as such, they suspend interstate travel. The government is sued, but the argument they use is that the Constitution was not meant to be a death pact. The military (actually, it might have been National Guard) are used to enforce the curfew. The book was written in about 1996, so I don't think it was a warning or anything.

Anyways, the book had a lot of discussion on the legal implications, and while Mr. Clancy is not a lawyer AFAIK, the legal reasoning *seemed* fairly solid. Luckily in the book, the disease essentially burned itself out (after killing many people).

To that end, I somewhat agree with the logic in the book. With regards to the discussed issue, although I think it is preferable not to have the military involved when possible, and I think Bush is barking up the wrong tree right now (making me nervous), at least someone is thinking of the implications of trying to contain an epidemic by whatever means necessary. While it is true that a disease would be difficult to contain, it might be possible and we should think about how we would do that. The alternative is just to let the disease run rampant and hope we come up with some medicinal remedy in the meantime - which would be another slim hope.
posted by Drylnn at 11:53 PM on October 4, 2005


er... should have said quarrentine
posted by Drylnn at 11:54 PM on October 4, 2005

Would the residents of quarantined cities be allowed to vote?
posted by muppetboy at 12:04 AM on October 5, 2005

I mean, if you're one state from winning in 2008 and a particular city would make the difference... and your golf buddies decide when a city gets quarantined... this could actually matter.
posted by muppetboy at 12:09 AM on October 5, 2005

What kind of transparency is there in the process through which a city gets quarantined? Who decides? This whole idea is starting to sound really fucking scary to me.
posted by muppetboy at 12:11 AM on October 5, 2005

Why do I get the feeling that the populations getting quarantined will be well below the poverty line and at least a few shades darker than lily-white?
posted by signal at 12:27 AM on October 5, 2005

Just what we want - a bunch of national guard straight from Iraq with itchy-trigger fingers to enforce a quarantine in the US. I see dead people, lots of dead people.
posted by JJ86 at 3:54 AM on October 5, 2005

If there's anything germs enjoy, it's air travel. Anything that goes human-to-human transmission will probably just show up all over the country, everywhere, in a few days. Long before the govmint would have time to get its act together in any meaningful way.
IANAD. I talk to people all over the country, and amuse myself by asking what kind of minor bugs they have in their area, and the answers are usually amazingly similar.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:44 AM on October 5, 2005

Great idea. I guess we would just sort of CONCENTRATE all the patients into a CAMP or something -- guarded by the military. Of course, I am more in favor of guarding the chickens (and turkeys, etc.). That'll keep the avian flu contained. ...

In all seriousness, though, if people eliminated animals from their diets, we'd be less exposed to a lot of scary germs/communicable diseases: e.coli, salmonella, mad cow, avian flu, SARS, etc.

Animals are nasty! Let's face it. Why do we keep breeding them in filth and putting them in our mouths?
posted by Possum at 7:39 AM on October 5, 2005

The flu book Bush is reading is "The Great Influenza" by John M. Barry.

I know, because I saw it mentioned in a "what books are on the President's nighstand?" article this past summer. I was surprised at the time -- not only that Bush was reading history, but because I was reading the same book myself. I swear, it's the ONLY thing he and I have in common.

According to Barry, one of the accelerators behind the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic was the U.S.'s ramp up to World War I, which created much more interstate travel than ever before, and the crowding of thousands of young soldiers into barracks designed for only hundreds.

Woodrow Wilson's Sedition Act did its own damage as well, by making it "punishable by twenty years in jail to utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States. One could go to jail for cursing the government, or criticizing it, even if what one said was true." This consequently kept any real news or information about the pandemic out of the news, for fear that it would "hurt American morale."

Barry's book is interesting -- a bit overwrought and in need of a good edit, perhaps, but illuminating about a time and events in the U.S. I knew little about.
posted by CMichaelCook at 8:20 AM on October 5, 2005

Seriously, though, why does it seem that Bush is, of late, seemingly heralding the intervention of the military as some sort of magic pill? First after Katrina, and again now. The claim seems to be that the military is better prepared to handle such things, instead of, say, the civilian organizations that are supposed to handle them (like FEMA, in the case of Katrina).

I do wonder why the National Guard wouldn't be considered good enough for something like this, though.

posted by Godbert at 3:42 PM EST

Ah. All part of the Grover Norquisting of America. Grover Norquist (who heads up Americans For Tax Reform and has the ears and minds of the Bush Administration) wants to get rid of most of the Federal Government-- including OSHA, EPA, FEMA, and the CDC. This is being accomplished in two ways: first by running up deficits that will eventually bankrupt the Federal Government and second by running agencies such as FEMA so poorly that the American tax payers will call for their abolishment.

What will be left? The IRS, the FBI and the armed services. So naturally Bush thinks that the army is going to be the answer to everything.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:42 AM on October 5, 2005

I'd speculate that any quarantine extended in time and space would be impossible to enforce, even with strict martial law, curfew, and shoot-on-sight. I guess if you gave people free cable and air-dropped some Doritos, it might soften the blow a bit, but everything would pretty much fall apart, either because people were going nuts indoors, or because they hadn't shown up for work. You'd lose more people to cabin fever, militias, and the tin-foil-hat bunker mentalities than the flu.

Of course, the rich would be okay, so expect them to support camps for the rest of us, along with justifications of national security and images of Chinese turrists trying to bio-engineer us all to death.
posted by carter at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2005

Reminds me of that Far Side cartoon about the veterinarian's cure chart for horse ailments (paraphrasing):

Broken Leg: Shoot
Stomach Virus: Shoot
Constipation: Shoot
Fleas: Shoot
Runny Nose: Shoot

The BushCo version might be something like:

Terrorists: Military
Oil Shortage: Military
Hurricanes: Military
Earthquake: Military
Epidemic: Military
Riots: Military
Gay Marriage: Military
posted by zoogleplex at 12:20 PM on October 5, 2005

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