President Barack Obama on Tuesday insisted the Ebola epidemic can be halted if the United States doesn’t give in to fear and adopts “sensible” monitoring requirements for health care workers whom he said were “doing God’s work” in West Africa, where the virus is raging.
“This disease can be contained. It will be defeated,” Obama said from the South Lawn of the White House, following a call with members of a U.S. Agency for International Development team that’s been working in West Africa since early August.
But, he cautioned, the U.S. “has to keep leading the global response. America cannot look like it is shying away.”
Obama also spoke Tuesday with Amber Vinson, one of two Dallas nurses who contracted Ebola from a patient who caught it in West Africa, and he said it was important to note that two people had gotten Ebola on American soil and that both were now free of the disease. The only American still undergoing treatment is Craig Spencer, a New York physician who contracted the disease after working in Guinea.
Earlier Tuesday, Vinson hugged each member of her medical team at Emory University Hospital before being discharged from the facility.
“After a rigorous course of treatment and thorough testing, we have determined that Miss Vinson has recovered from her infection with Ebola virus and that she can return to her family, to the community and to her life without any concerns about transmitting this virus to any other individuals,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, the medical director of Emory’s Serious Communicable Disease Unit, where Vinson has been in isolation since Oct. 15, said at a news conference.
Vinson is the seventh patient in the current epidemic to recover from Ebola after treatment in one of the nation’s four biocontainment units.
Obama’s remarks in Washington came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for U.S. doctors, nurses and other health care workers returning to the United States.
The administration had put pressure on the governments of New York state and New Jersey to loosen what it saw as overly restrictive quarantine restrictions imposed late last week after the New York doctor was hospitalized with Ebola. Obama didn’t mention either state in his remarks, but he called the new CDC guidelines “sensible, based in science and tailored to the unique circumstances of each health worker.”
The White House on Monday had criticized New Jersey’s mandatory quarantine of a health care worker returning from Sierra Leone, and Obama said monitoring requirements needed to be prudent but not deter health care workers.
“We’ve got to make sure that those workers who are willing and able and dedicated to go over there in a really tough job, that they’re applauded, thanked and supported,” the president said. “I want to make sure that every policy we put in place is supportive of their efforts, because if they are successful, then we’re not going to have to worry about Ebola here at home.”
Obama said he planned to meet Wednesday at the White House with doctors and public health workers who’d returned from West Africa and who were about to go.
The president said the USAID team had helped to increase the number of Ebola treatment units and burial teams, had expanded the pipeline of medical personnel, equipment and supplies, and had launched an education campaign.
Obama wouldn’t answer a shouted question as to whether he’d talked to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who agreed Tuesday to release nurse Kaci Hickox after she’d spent nearly 72 hours in quarantine. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest refused for a second day to say whether the two had spoken.
But Earnest noted that Hickox, who’d been detained in a tent at a New Jersey hospital, had been released “consistent with the guidance from the CDC.”
The administration has been criticized for not sending a clear message about monitoring for the virus, but Earnest said the U.S. was beginning to see an “emerging consensus” among the states, noting that Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut and the District of Columbia have issued protocols that are similar to those the CDC has recommended.
On Tuesday, the American Public Health Association came out in support of the new CDC guidelines and against state-imposed quarantines.
“We strongly urge elected leaders to defer quarantine powers for public health officials,” said a statement by association Executive Director Georges Benjamin. “It is a public health measure that ought to be used with extreme care and only under the most urgent circumstances. Misuse or overuse of quarantine authority will erode public trust and thwart future efforts to control infectious disease when you need it most.”
In Atlanta, with her parents and other relatives on hand, Vinson thanked her family, and most of all her faith, for helping her survive the ordeal.
“While the skill and dedication of the doctors, nurses and others who have taken care of me have obviously led to my recovery, it has been God’s love that has truly carried my family and me through this difficult time and has played such an important role in giving me hope and the strength to fight,” Vinson said at an afternoon news conference.
She took the time to remember the 10,000-plus people who’ve died from Ebola in West Africa, where the virus continues to spread and to kill 70 percent of those who become infected.
“While this is a day for celebration and gratitude, I ask that we not lose focus on the thousands of families who continue to labor under the burden of this disease in West Africa,” Vinson said.
Ribner was mindful of the growing debate in the United States about whether mandatory quarantines for health care workers returning to the U.S. from West Africa are the best way to stop the spread of the disease at home. Many have argued that the restrictions imposed by states such as New York, New Jersey and Illinois will discourage U.S. health care workers from volunteering in West Africa.
“I think the thing we really have to keep in mind is that the only way that we are truly going to be able to make our citizens safe is if we control the outbreak in Africa,” Ribner said.
“As we put in place various measures to try and protect citizens of this country, we have to be very mindful of any unintended consequences which may make it more difficult to manage patients in the African continent. Every state is going to have to do that very delicate balancing act,” Ribner said.
Vinson, 29, is one of two nurses who contracted the virus earlier this month while caring for a Liberian Ebola patient at Texas Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. The first nurse, Nina Pham, was pronounced healthy and discharged last week from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Vinson was transferred to Emory on Oct. 15 from the Dallas hospital, where some 70 staffers were being monitored for the disease after caring for the patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died Oct. 8.
At Emory, Vinson received plasma from two former Ebola patients at Emory, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol.
It was hoped that plasma from the Ebola survivors would help jump-start Vinson’s immune response to the infection. The experimental procedure has been used on several Ebola patients, but it’s unclear whether it helps.
Ribner said that as more patients under U.S. care recovered from Ebola, it was becoming clear that “aggressive supportive care” helped patients survive.
For example, in July most experts thought that Ebola patients who needed dialysis or ventilator support “would invariably die,” he said.
“I think we have shown our colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere that that is certainly not the case,” Ribner said. “And therefore, I think we have changed the algorithm for how aggressive we are going to be willing to be in caring for patients with Ebola virus disease.”