Responding to a dramatic surge in the number of U.S. swine flu cases, President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring H1N1 influenza a national emergency.
The order by Mr. Obama, announced on the weekend, will speed the ability of hospitals and health authorities to take measures to fight the pandemic through such steps as setting up tents in hospital parking lots to establish extra emergency room care and creating health clinics in school gymnasiums or community centres.
"The rates of illness continue to rise rapidly within many communities across the nation, and the potential exists for the pandemic to overburden health care resources in some locations," Mr. Obama said in the declaration.
The action comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the disease is now widespread in 46 states, a development it calls "unprecedented during seasonal flu," signalling the sweeping nature of the current outbreak.
The death toll in the U.S. since the end of August of laboratory-confirmed cases of the swine flu is 411, but a factor worrying health experts is that many of the victims are young children. With 53 of the fatalities among the young, about one out of every eight deaths are in those aged 17 and under.
The tally in children is on track to make the outbreak far worse than a normal influenza season in the United States, which typically claims the lives of about 80 young people annually.
The White House said in a statement that the declaration will allow medical centres to deal with a surge in H1N1 patients by allowing, as needed, the waiver of certain federal health requirements.
There have been 8,204 laboratory-confirmed hospitalizations due to the illness.
Tents set up outside of hospitals also offer the advantage of slowing the spread of the virus, by keeping flu-afflicted patients out of regular emergency rooms and wards. If hospitals are overwhelmed by flu cases, the federal proclamation also allows them to collect less patient information to speed up giving treatments.
The pandemic continues to spread around the globe, with the World Health Organization saying it has tracked nearly 414,000 laboratory-confirmed H1N1 cases and nearly 5,000 deaths.