Bethesda -- Gov. Martin O'Malley said Thursday that Maryland and other states will be better prepared to deal with a swine flu pandemic this fall because of problems encountered in coping with the outbreak earlier in the year.
A national vaccination drive is likely to begin in mid-October, said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who cautioned that no final decision has been made.
Schools and day-care centers are potential vaccination sites, since children are among those at highest risk. Others in line for early priority include pregnant women and young adults with underlying conditions - such as asthma, diabetes, extreme obesity, and chronic lung and heart disease - that make them more susceptible to the disease.
President Barack Obama, who addressed the meeting via phone link from the G-8 summit in Italy, said the government "may end up averting a crisis. That's our hope."
Scientists are still working on development of a swine flu vaccine, while monitoring the pandemic's spread in the Southern Hemisphere, where the annual flu season is at its peak. Experimental tests could begin next month, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
O'Malley, who moderated a panel discussion, praised the administration for refining the advice it gives state and local officials. In May, fuzzy guidance from federal authorities was blamed for causing school districts to overreact, prompting criticism of public officials in Maryland.
A total of 726 schools shut down, including six in Maryland, affecting almost 500,000 children nationwide.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the administration is developing guidelines that will help officials decide on a case-by-case basis whether to keep classrooms open.
He said O'Malley "let us know when we weren't doing a good job of communicating."
In an interview, O'Malley said Maryland is "well prepared, and we want to become very well prepared" to deal with a pandemic this fall. He said state officials would be able to communicate with the public and local officials in more "predictable and regular ways" as a result of lessons learned.
Sebelius said the federal government is making $350 million available to state governments and hospitals for pandemic planning. The cost of developing and distributing the vaccine is being borne by federal taxpayers.
Health officials said their greatest fear is that the swine flu will mutate into a far deadlier strain.
"Influenza may be the most unpredictable of all communicable diseases," said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To date, the H1N1 virus has remained relatively stable as it spreads through South America, Asia and Australia, he said.
Fewer than 200 U.S. swine flu deaths have been reported, including two in Maryland, though the CDC estimates that 1 million Americans have been infected.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 40 million to 50 million people worldwide, began with a mild wave in the spring, followed by a highly fatal outbreak in the fall.
In an effort to raise public awareness, the Health and Human Services Department is offering a $2,500 prize for the best YouTube flu prevention video, which will be shown as a public service announcement on TV.