In the face of growing Republican calls for travel restrictions on Ebola-ravaged areas in West Africa, the Obama administration on Friday sought to reassure anxious Americans that current safeguards were enough to keep the deadly virus from gaining a foothold on U.S. soil.
In a rare White House briefing on Friday afternoon, top administration health, security and military personnel made it clear that no travel bans were being contemplated. They argued that such restrictions would make it harder to get volunteer medical personnel to Ebola-stricken countries if people wouldn’t be able to leave once after they arrive.
“Right now we believe those types of steps actually impede the response,” said Lisa Monaco, deputy national security adviser and assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. “They impede and slow down the ability of the United States and other international partners to actually get expertise and capabilities and equipment into the affected areas.”
The administration’s push-back came as the Ebola scare landed in the nation’s capital Friday when two possible cases of Ebola surfaced at area hospitals. One occurred at a nearby suburban hospital, but the patient turned out to be suffering from malaria, not Ebola.
The second possible case was under investigation only a few miles from the White House when a patient who recently traveled to Nigeria was admitted to Howard University Hospital in the District of Columbia with Ebola-like symptoms.
“In an abundance of caution, we have activated the appropriate infection control protocols, including isolating the patient,” hospital spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said in a statement to local media. “Our medical team continues to evaluate and monitor progress in close collaboration with the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Department of Health.”
By Friday evening, test results had not determined whether the patient would be the second confirmed case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States.
“At this time, there are no confirmed cases of Ebola at Howard University or in the District of Columbia,” Hamilton said in a statement.
Earlier Friday, another Ebola scare prompted the Cobb County Jail outside Atlanta to stop accepting inmates after a man arrested for driving under the influence developed a fever and told jail officials he had recently traveled to Africa. The inmate later tested negative for Ebola.
As cracks emerge in efforts to contain the disease in Africa, more Ebola discoveries and false alarms are expected nationwide. To date, 15 people have been tested for the virus in the U.S. But the first, and thus far only, person to be diagnosed with Ebola in America remains hospitalized in Dallas.
Thomas Eric Duncan is believed to have contracted the deadly virus after assisting a pregnant woman who had Ebola in his native Liberia, a West African nation struggling to contain the disease. After Duncan flew to the U.S., he began showing symptoms of the disease during a visit with relatives in Dallas. Those relatives are now confined to their apartment under a court-ordered quarantine.
On Friday, health officials in Texas said they’re closely monitoring 50 other people in the Dallas area who could develop Ebola. While 40 are considered “low risk” for contracting the virus, ten of the 50 are thought to be “high risk” because of their closer contacts with Duncan and his relatives, said Texas Health Commissioner David Lakey.
It was the failure of Dallas hospital officials to isolate and treat Duncan on his initial visit that has fostered skepticism about America’s readiness to handle a widespread Ebola outbreak.
On Friday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged some stumbles in Dallas but said the American public should still be confident.
“There were things that did not go the way they should have in Dallas, but there are a lot of things that went right and are going right,” Fauci said. “If you look at them, the person is now in isolation being properly taken care of.”
The growing Ebola scare has prompted calls from Republican lawmakers to curtail or stop U.S. air travel to and from the West African nations where the outbreak is centered.
On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked the Federal Aviation Administration in writing whether it would stop or limit air travel to countries with significant Ebola outbreaks and whether airline passengers would be notified if they traveled on the same flight as an Ebola patient.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., called for a halt to non-U.S. citizens entering America from Ebola-stricken African countries. “It’s common sense,” Jones said in a Twitter feed.
Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal went a step further, calling for a ban on all flights to the U.S. from countries with Ebola outbreaks.
“President Obama said it was ‘unlikely’ that Ebola would reach the U.S. Well, it has, and we need to protect our people,” Jindal said in a statement.
Sensing that public anxiety was rising over the Ebola situation, the administration summoned high-ranking officials on Friday to publicly press its case for staying the current course on the threat. Joining Monaco and Fauci at the White House were Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell; Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development; and Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Africa Command.
Burwell said the Department of Homeland Security is in the process of advising all travelers returning to the U.S. from African countries with Ebola outbreaks to monitor their health for 21 days and to immediately seek medical help if any symptoms develop.
“We recognize the concern that even a single case of Ebola creates on our shores,” Burwell said. “But we have the public health systems and the public health providers in place to contain the spread of this disease.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon, after announcing last month that 3,000 U.S. military personnel could be deployed to West Africa to provide assistance in the fight against Ebola, said Friday that the number could grow to 4,000.
While two potential Ebola vaccines are in the early stages of safety testing, they probably won’t be ready in time to help curb the current outbreak, said Dr. Stephan Monroe, deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the CDC.
“It’s unlikely that any of the vaccines that are currently available are going to have a significant impact on controlling this epidemic just because of the time involved in scaling up of the production,” Monroe told reporters earlier this week. “It’s likely that there’ll be some use of vaccine in limited clinical trials during the outbreak, but it’s unlikely that that’ll have a huge effect on the course of the outbreak.”