President Obama emerged from an Oval Office meeting on the Ebola crisis this afternoon declaring that he considers the outbreak “a top national security priority” and the fight against the disease in West Africa is “not just a matter of charity.”
He also announced enhanced screening of incoming airline passengers, something senators were clamoring for last week.
Invited to the meeting to review his “all hands on deck” approach were Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“I know that the American people are concerned about the possibility of an Ebola outbreak, and Ebola is a very serious disease. And the ability of people who are infected who could carry that across borders is something that we have to take extremely seriously. At the same time, it is important for Americans to know the facts, and that is that because of the measures that we’ve put in place, as well as our world-class health system and the nature of the Ebola virus itself — which is difficult to transmit — the chances of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is extremely low,” Obama said, noting that “our prayers are obviously with” Dallas patient Thomas Earl Duncan and his family.
“Procedures are now in place to rapidly evaluate anybody who might be showing symptoms… We have learned some lessons, though, in terms of what happened in Dallas. We don’t have a lot of margin for error.”
Obama said part of the strategy discussed was spreading the word about proper protocols to hospitals, governors, mayors and health officials.
He said the Defense Department effort on the ground in West Africa is “making progress,” though “the environment is difficult because the public health system there has very few resources and is already extraordinarily fragile.”
“And I’ll be very honest with you — although we have seen great interest on the part of the international community, we have not seen other countries step up as aggressively as they need to,” Obama chided unnamed world leaders. “…We’ve got some small countries that are punching above their weight on this, but we’ve got some large countries that aren’t doing enough.”
Obama took one question after the meeting, and was asked what he would say to Americans who are nervous in spite of reassurance from the White House. A new Pew survey released today found 20 percent have a “great deal” of confidence in the U.S. government to “prevent a major outbreak,” and 32 percent said they fear Ebola striking their family.
“Well, I just explained to them that the nature of this disease — the good news is, is that it’s not an airborne disease… We know what has to be done and we’ve got the medical infrastructure to do it. But this is an extraordinarily virulent disease when you don’t follow the protocols,” he said.
“We’re also going to be working on protocols to do additional passenger screening, both at the source and here in the United States. All of these things make me confident that here in the United States, at least, the chances of an outbreak, of an epidemic here are extraordinarily low.”
The White House released a three-pronged strategy leading off with international response to the disease, then domestic response and passenger screening.
“CBP personnel receive training in illness recognition, but if they identify an individual believed to be infected, CBP will contact CDC along with local public health authorities to help with further medical evaluation,” the fact sheet said of the screening at U.S. points of entry. “CBP is handing out fact sheets to travelers arriving in the U.S. from Ebola- affected countries, which detail information on Ebola, health signs to look for, and information for their doctor should they need to seek medical attention in the future.”
“Secretary Johnson has also directed Transportation Security Administration to issue an Information Circular to air carriers reinforcing the CDC’s message on Ebola and providing guidance on identifying potential passengers with Ebola. DHS is closely monitoring the situation and Secretary Johnson will consider additional actions as appropriate.”
Customs and Border Patrol will “review all travelers entering the United States for general overt signs of illnesses” and isolate those “identified with a possible communicable disease or identified from information that is received from the CDC.”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) wrote to CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske on Friday to ask if the agency had plans in place to implement advanced screening procedures.
In the letter, Cornyn asked for “additional data, including country of origin, on how many individuals have received enhanced screening upon arrival to the United States since the Ebola virus outbreak began in West Africa.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the Senate health committee, also Friday called on Obama to “immediately begin screening at all U.S. airports any person who is traveling to the U.S. from one of the countries with an Ebola epidemic.”
“This screening in the U.S. would be in addition to the screening they receive when they leave the countries that are the source of the outbreak,” Alexander stressed, adding that the president “should immediately designate a single cabinet member to coordinate the response among the agencies involved and the other countries of the world who should be more involved.”
“We must take the deadly, dangerous threat of Ebola in West Africa as seriously as we take the ISIS threat in the Middle East. The spread of this disease requires a more urgent response from the United States and other countries.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wrote Obama today to also ask that he name an Ebola czar to coordinate all agency efforts.
“As members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, we want to make sure resources are allocated most efficiently across the agencies responsible for the Ebola response in West Africa and disease control activities at home,” they wrote.
Moran and Wolf had more questions for the commander in chief, including, “What specific duties, missions, and responsibilities will be assigned to our nation’s servicemembers partaking in DoD’s role in daily operations in West Africa?”
They encouraged Obama to bring in someone with experience to manage the crisis, “well-respected former Administration officials with a background in public health and international diplomacy to assist with this serious challenge, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.”
After the Ebola meeting, Obama scooted off to a DNC event at a Turkish tapas restaurant in Washington.
“We’re spending a lot of time working on Ebola. And although I know there are understandable fears here in the United States, we’re very confident that the chances of an outbreak here are exceedingly low,” he said.
“On the other hand, this speaks to the broader need for us to build a public health infrastructure around the world so that when epidemics like this happen, that we’re able to catch it at the source quickly, save lives, but also make sure that the American people are safe. And so once again, Americans are showing leadership in addressing this crisis.”