President Bush, campaigning in the crucial swing state of Florida, assured vulnerable Americans today that his administration "is doing everything possible" to address a shortage of flu vaccines, a problem that the Democratic opposition said he should have foreseen.
"I know there are some here who are worried about the flu season," Bush said at a rally in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I want to assure them that our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots despite the major manufacturing defect that caused this problem."
Florida, which decided the 2000 presidential election in Bush's favor and is up for grabs again in the Nov. 2 contest, has nearly 3 million residents over age 65. They account for more than 17 percent of the state's population -- significantly higher than the national average of 12 percent -- and constitute a formidable voting bloc.
"We have millions of vaccine doses on hand for the most vulnerable Americans, and millions more will be shipped in the coming weeks," Bush said at a baseball stadium. "We're stockpiling more than 4 million doses of flu vaccine for children. We're working closely with state and local officials to make sure we distribute vaccines to the most vulnerable Americans throughout our country."
Bush expressed gratitude "to the healthy Americans who are declining a flu shot this year so that the most vulnerable of our citizens will get the vaccine here in Florida and across the nation." The president said in last week's debate with Democratic challenger John F. Kerry that he would forgo his own flu shot this year because of the shortage.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson today dismissed the Democrats' criticism of the administration's response to the shortage and said an additional 2.6 million doses of flu vaccine would be available in January.
"We've successfully worked through vaccine supply problems in the past, and we're doing so this time as well," Thompson told a news conference. "We need all of us to take a deep breath."
The Kerry campaign charged that the administration failed to act after being warned three years ago about the prospect of vaccine shortages. In a statement, it cited a 2001 report by the General Accounting Office that said the government and the pharmaceutical industry were generally unprepared for a flu pandemic or vaccine shortages.
The May 30, 2001, report on flu vaccine shortages and delays during the 2000-01 flu season warned that "manufacturing delays could occur in the future and again illustrate the fragility of current methods to produce a new vaccine every year." While recognizing that flu vaccine production and distribution "are private-sector responsibilities," the report suggested that there was more that government agencies could do. It cautioned that "when the supply is not sufficient, there is no mechanism currently in place to establish priorities and distribute flu vaccine first to high-risk individuals."
In a statement today, the Kerry campaign said Bush "is trying to run away from any responsibility about the important public health crisis of the flu vaccine shortage." It questioned Bush's effort to blame the problem solely on a "major manufacturing defect," saying that "public health experts agree that the administration ignored warnings to take action to avert this crisis." It asserted, "America should not be left in a position where our public health is left vulnerable to flaws from a single company."
The campaign also launched a new radio ad in Florida that bashes Bush on the vaccine shortage. "George Bush and the Republicans are so busy kowtowing to drug companies, so busy giving them billions, helping them price-gouge, pumping up their profits, so busy selling us out, they can't even get vaccines to keep pregnant women safe from the flu," a narrator says.
Referring to the flu vaccine shortage and other issues, Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement, "It's time for a fresh start with a president who is forthcoming about what he's doing to address the issues facing Americans here at home and abroad."
Kerry has hit the Bush administration on the vaccine shortage in stump speeches and other public comments in recent days. The Bush campaign has responded by accusing Kerry of using "scare tactics" on the issue.
In an interview aired on National Public Radio today, the Massachusetts senator said, "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism? If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, what kind of health care program are you running?"
In a speech in Florida yesterday, Kerry said Bush "just doesn't get it" on health care. "And if there was any doubt before, his response to the shortage of flu vaccines put it to rest," Kerry said. "With senior citizens standing in line for hours and mothers frantic about how to protect their children, the president gave the public his solution: don't get a flu shot. . . . Ladies and Gentlemen, here's the Bush health care plan: Don't get a flu shot, don't import less expensive drugs, don't negotiate for lower prices, and most of all, don't get sick. And so there's only one way to avoid another four years of hearing 'don't' from this president when it comes to health care: Don't vote for George W. Bush."
Kerry today was campaigning in Pennsylvania and Ohio -- two other battleground states -- while his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, scheduled campaign appearances in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, was out on the hustings in Ohio, riding a bus to scheduled appearances in three cities.
At one event in Ohio, where minor troubles with absentee ballots have emerged, Cheney was queried today about election fraud.
Asked at a meeting of supporters in an airplane hanger outside Columbus whether the country is headed for a repeat of the 2000 voting debacle, Cheney said he and President Bush are not planning to squeak by.
"I'm one of those who believes our margin is going to be bigger this time than those 537 votes in Florida," Cheney said.
Cheney said any voter fraud should be prosecuted. He said he was optimistic that the country will see "a good, strong, hard-fought, clean election" in which "everybody's vote will be counted," no voters will be intimidated, and those who are not eligible won't be registered.
The vice president called Kerry "someone whose head is fundamentally in the wrong place" to defeat terrorism.
Cheney was scheduled to hold a late afternoon rally in the Cincinnati area's Hamilton County, where local newspapers reported that at least two absentee ballots had been sent out without John Kerry's name on them. Election officials said a printing error accidentally replaced Kerry's name, not Ralph Nader's, with the words "Candidate Removed." The officials said they believe the mistake was limited to a handful of ballots.
Laris, accompanying Cheney, reported from Ohio.