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White House Defends Ebola on the Back Burner at Africa Leaders' Summit

WASHINGTON — The White House responded to criticism that its Africa leaders’ summit this week wasn’t focusing enough on the Ebola outbreak by stressing that the administration wants the continent to be known for economic opportunity instead of just disease.

The second American healthcare worker arrived in Atlanta from Liberia today for treatment in Emory University Hospital’s containment unit. New York City’s health department confirmed that a patient at Mount Sinai Hospital who had recently visited West Africa and showed up Sunday night with gastrointestinal symptoms and a high fever was being tested, but the city tried to tamp down any panic.

“After consultation with CDC and Mount Sinai, the Health Department has concluded that the patient is unlikely to have Ebola,” the health department said in a statement. “Specimens are being tested for common causes of illness and to definitively exclude Ebola.”

Still, the death toll in West Africa jumped to 887 as of Aug. 1, according to the World Health Organization, and the virus became entrenched in a fourth country, Nigeria — carried there by an American citizen working for the Liberian government who died after touching down in Lagos.

Minister of Health Onyebuchi Chukwu told reporters Monday that the doctor who treated Patrick Sawyer had contracted Ebola. “All those who came into contact with the late Sawyer depending on the level of contact are still being traced and being invited every day and they are placed under surveillance just to ensure that the spread of disease is curtailed,” he said. Eight people known to have come into contact with Sawyer, who leaves behind a wife and three daughters in Minnesota, are under quarantine and 70 are under surveillance, Chukwu said.

“We are aware of the new confirmed and suspected cases in Nigeria,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. “Senior-level U.S. government officials have been in touch with key Nigerian government officials and have discussed the current Ebola situation in the country, preparedness efforts, and the necessary response measures. These conversations are ongoing.”

African leaders — minus Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma, who both stayed home instead of flying to Washington — were feted tonight at the White House.

Guests at the dinner included Guinea President Alpha Conde, leader of the other country that makes up the epicenter of the outbreak. Other guests include former President Jimmy Carter, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Robert De Niro, many members of Congress, and Valerie Jarrett along with her boyfriend Ahmad Rashad.

One Nigerian media outlet seized on a photo of President Goodluck Jonathan in a hesitant handshake with an American to suggest that people feared interacting with him because of Ebola.

Vice President Joe Biden sat down for a sidelines meeting with Jonathan today in which they talked about how the U.S. and Nigeria could “work together to urgently contain the outbreak of the Ebola virus,” according to a readout from the White House.

At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest responded to complaints that the tone of the summit hadn’t been altered to address the growing crisis at hand.

“I know that it has been something that this administration, through the CDC, has been focused on for several months now. The initial reports of an ebola outbreak occurred back in March and there have been CDC personnel on the ground in the affected countries since then to try to deal with and contain this outbreak,” Earnest said.

The goal of the summit, he said, is “to help people understand that our relationship — the United States’ relationship with nations in Africa — is broad and full of opportunity.”

“So often, the immediate thought of many Americans when they consider U.S. policy toward Africa turns to issues of poverty and disease and conflict, corruption,” Earnest said. “And the truth is there is significant economic opportunity that exists in Africa. Six of the largest — or six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are on the continent of Africa. And there is a tremendous opportunity for American businesses to coordinate and invest in Africa and in businesses in Africa. There’s the potential for new markets to be opened to U.S. businesses in Africa.”

“And that is an indication that our — that while we stand with our African partners in their time of need, particularly when it comes to something as threatening as an outbreak of a disease like ebola, that our relationship is much more diverse and broad than just focusing on that one specific issue.”

Ebola got just one mention in President Obama’s speech to the U.S.-Africa Business Forum at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel this afternoon. “Let me welcome the delegations from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, with whom we are working so urgently to control the Ebola outbreak and whose citizens are in our thoughts and prayers today,” he said.

African leaders would likely be very interested in the serum administered to the two American patients that improved their symptoms, but Earnest said that’s in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval court.

“Well, as you know, it’s the responsibility of the FDA to — to approve specific medication for treatment of — of a range of illnesses,” he said, stressing that the administration still believes that the best way to contain the fast-spreading outbreak is with proper medical protocols and precautions at the source of the virus in Africa.

Earnest repeated the assessment of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that “those in the United States do not face a significant risk from this Ebola outbreak.”

As far as trying to fast-track approval for the drug that has showed promise, “I don’t have any — any comment on a specific medication that may or may not be approved. That’s something that would be evaluated by medical experts at the FDA, with some input from the CDC, I would assume.”

“But, yet, the White House has, of course, been in touch with these government agencies to ensure that we are providing the necessary resources to respond to this situation and effectively coordinating and integrating this government’s response with the international response to this Ebola outbreak in a couple of countries in Africa. OK?”

Psaki confirmed the Ebola discussion is making a “minimal” appearance at the leaders’ summit.

“I would remind you that we’re talking about a handful of countries, of which there are more than 50 represented. Obviously, it certainly is an issue that is on the minds of the individuals from the countries that are impacted. As you know, many of these leaders were not able to come as they stayed home to address the situation,” she said Monday. “But I sat in a handful of bilateral meetings with the Secretary this morning. The focus of the conversations was much more about our economic partnership, their desire to have businesses engage with their economies, their need for investment in infrastructure, security concerns, cooperation on those issues. And that’s really been the thrust of the discussion.”

No attendees from affected countries were prevented from entering the country, she added. “Obviously, there’s steps that are taken at ports of entry that DHS certainly has the lead on. But to our knowledge, no one entering the United States for this conference this week was prevented from entering at U.S. ports of entry. There are obviously a range of steps that are taken to protect the health and well-being of United States citizens.”

At the Pentagon today, press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said they were monitoring the outbreak, but “there’s been no impact to U.S. Africa Command’s operations in Africa.”

“But clearly, we’re watching this as closely as everybody else is and it’s an interagency effort here in the United States. It’s not just the Pentagon, it’s CDC, USAID, it’s State Department. I mean, we’re all — we’re all talking about this and working on this,” Kirby said.

“Secretary Hagel is monitoring it very, very closely. He has in fact stood up a task force here in the Pentagon to further review the situation and to help get our arms about it and what the impacts could be. But there has been no operational impact to the U.S. military as a result.”