WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans are indicating that they’re willing to go along with at least a portion of President Obama’s request for $6.2 billion to combat the Ebola virus, but are first demanding to know how the money will be spent.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which conducted a hearing on the proposal Wednesday, expressed concern about “the slow progress in detailing plans for how the money will be spent and some of the missteps made so far.”
But, Shelby added, “It is the fundamental responsibility of the federal government to respond effectively to this crisis. Every prudent step must be taken to protect the American people.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who will become the new majority leader when Congress reconvenes in January, hasn’t endorsed the specific proposal but agrees that action on the spread of Ebola needs to be a priority of the current lame-duck session.
“We must continue to support efforts to address the Ebola crisis,” McConnell said.
None of the lawmakers attending Wednesday’s hearing declared their opposition to the funding request.
The recent Ebola outbreak has particularly affected the nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in West Africa with infections found in Senegal, Mali and Nigeria as well. It has attracted significant national attention, especially since several cases have been reported in the U.S.
The current epidemic has resulted in almost 14,000 confirmed cases and nearly 5,000 deaths. Isolated cases have occurred in Spain and the United States. Nine patients have been treated stateside — two contracted the disease in Texas while the remainder contracted the disease in West Africa before traveling to America. Eight of those patients recovered and one died.
The Ebola virus is a particularly devastating disease that kills an average of about half of those infected. It is spread by direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected human or primate. Symptoms generally are detected from two days to three weeks after it is contracted, the signs being fever, sore throat, muscle pain and headaches.
Ultimately the virus results in vomiting, diarrhea and rash and impacts both the liver and kidneys.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, characterized the outbreak as “a serious situation that requires an all-hands-on-deck, all-government response.”
“I am deeply concerned about Ebola both here at home and abroad,” she said. “We must contain and eradicate this disease and face the fear it generates.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told the committee that she believes her agency has developed the right strategy to deal with the tragedy both at home and abroad.
While the U.S. may see some more Ebola patients in the future, she said, “We are confident that we will limit the number of cases here in the country,” asserting that “to stop the epidemic at its source in West Africa” is the best way to protect the American public.
The U.S., she said, needs to accelerate research and development of vaccines, rapid diagnostics and therapeutics to combat the disease and prevent future outbreaks and “establish what is needed to prevent spread of Ebola and to more broadly prevent, detect and rapidly respond to outbreaks before they become epidemics.”
The funding, Burwell said, will go toward “ensuring that HHS and our partners have the necessary resources not only to control and eliminate this epidemic, but also to make the investments necessary to protect us from similar outbreaks going forward.”
“We are committed to protecting the health and safety of the American people and contributing to the worldwide response,” she said.
The administration’s proposal calls for directing $2.9 billion to the Agency for International Development to directly address the source of the Ebola problem in West Africa. Another $112 million would go to the Department of Defense to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments. The Food and Drug Administration would also receive $25 million for the development of new drugs.
In addition, about $2 billion is designated for the Department of Health and Human Services to enhance the ability of hospitals to treat Ebola patients through training and equipment. And $1.5 billion would be deposited in a contingency fund to address unforeseen circumstances.
Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, testified that the money will provide the Pentagon with the funding necessary for airlifting medical supplies into affected areas. It also will be dedicated to building hospitals and offering healthcare training to local residents.