WASHINGTON — President Obama said at a cabinet meeting on Ebola today that he is “absolutely confident that we can prevent a serious outbreak of the disease here in the United States.”
Just over a week ago, the president said “the chance of an ebola outbreak in the United States is extremely low.”
Obama called today’s meeting after a second nurse from the Dallas hospital where Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan was treated fell ill with the virus. He had been scheduled to head to New Jersey and Connecticut for campaign stops today.
“In light of this second case, I thought it was very important for me to bring together our team, including our CDC Director Tom Frieden, to hear directly from them in terms of how we are ramping up our efforts here,” he said.
“Obviously, initially, we want to express concern for the two health workers who have been affected. You know, our nurses and our health care workers are absolutely vital to the health and well-being of our families.”
Obama said his administration is “monitoring, supervising, overseeing in a much more aggressive way exactly what’s taken place in Dallas initially, and making sure that the lessons learned are then transmitted to hospitals and clinics all across the country.”
As soon as someone is diagnosed with Ebola, Obama said they’ll be dispatching “a rapid response team, a SWAT team, essentially, from the CDC to be on the ground as quickly as possible, hopefully within 24 hours, so that they are taking the local hospital step by step through exactly what needs to be done.”
“We are reviewing every step of what’s happened since Mr. Duncan was initially brought in to the hospital in Dallas so that we understand exactly where some of the problems may have occurred, and doing a thorough canvas and inventory of all the workers who had contact with Mr. Duncan, including those who engaged in some of the testing that took place,” he added.
The Dallas Morning News reported that healthcare workers were exposed to Duncan without hazmat suits for two days while his Ebola test was being confirmed.
Obama said they’re now working with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Dallas officials “to make sure that in the event any other cases arise from these health workers, that they are properly cared for in a way that is consistent with public safety.”
He said people who traveled on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas on Monday with nurse Amber Vinson may be concerned but should understand “it is not like the flu; it is not airborne.”
Vinson reported a fever the next day and may have had a low-grade fever while on her trip. CDC Director Tom Frieden stressed in a call with reporters today that Vinson should not have gotten on a commercial airline.
“I want to use myself as an example, just so that people have a sense of the science here. I shook hands with, hugged, and kissed not the doctors, but a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work they did in treating one of the patients. They followed the protocols, they knew what they were doing, and I felt perfectly safe doing so,” Obama said of his visit to Atlanta a month ago. “And so, this is not a situation in which like a flu, the risks of a rapid spread of the disease are imminent. If we do these protocols properly, if we follow the steps, if we get the information out, then the likelihood of widespread Ebola outbreak in this country are very, very low.”
The president added that they would be sending support to the “scared” healthcare workers in Dallas.
The administration, he said, is “going to be continuing examining our screening processes at airports.”
“We are going to have to make sure that we do not lose sight of the importance of the international response to what is taking place in West Africa. I am absolutely confident that we can prevent a serious outbreak of the disease here in the United States. But it becomes more difficult to do so if this epidemic of Ebola rages out of control in West Africa. If it does, then it will spread globally, in an age of frequent travel, and you know, the kind of constant interactions that people have across borders,” Obama continued.
“…Last night I had a call with Prime Minister Abe of Japan to solicit greater support for the international effort. This morning I spoke with Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Prime Minister Renzi of Italy, President Hollande of France, as well as David Cameron, the prime minister of Great Britain, to make sure that we are coordinating our efforts and that we are putting in a lot more resources than so far, at least, the international community has put into this process.”
The bottom line, Obama said: “I want people to understand that the dangers of you contracting Ebola, the dangers of a serious outbreak, are extraordinarily low.”
“But we are taking this very seriously at the highest levels of government. And we are going to be able to manage this particular situation, but we have to look toward the future,” he said. “And if we are not responding internationally in an effective way, and if we do not set up the kind of preparedness and training in our public health infrastructure here in the United States, not just for this outbreak, but for future outbreaks, then we could have problems.”
At today’s briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked why it was still OK to allow flights from the three West African countries that comprise Ebola ground zero — Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone — if it was risky for Vinson to hop on a commercial flight from Ohio.
“There’s a multilayered screening protocol that’s in place to ensure that individuals that may have symptoms consistent with Ebola are not even able to board planes in West Africa,” Earnest said.
A travel ban “is not on the table at this point.”
“Shutting down travel to that area of the world would prevent the expeditious flow of personnel and equipment into the region, and the only way for us to stop this outbreak and to eliminate any risk from Ebola to the American public is to stop this outbreak at the source,” Earnest said.
“So we are mobilizing significant resources to make sure that supplies and personnel can get to the affected region and start meeting the needs of the affected region so that we can stop the outbreak there. And that’s why, right now, the travel ban is not on the table.”
The CDC director is likely to face more questions about travel from the Ebola epicenter when he testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee tomorrow.
“Given the spread of Ebola in Dallas, the most sensible way to prevent the spread of Ebola in the United States is to restrict travel to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in West Africa to essential personnel, and to develop quarantine procedures for anyone from those countries arriving in the United States. These individuals should be monitored for symptoms for 21 days to make certain they are not infected with Ebola,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement today.
“In addition, I again urge the president, as I did last week, to designate immediately a single cabinet member to coordinate a more urgent Ebola response among all U.S. agencies involved and other countries that should be more involved,” Alexander added. “This crisis needs stronger leadership and a greater sense of urgency from the president.”
Earnest said “there are individuals who are directly responsible for their line of responsibility, and you have an individual here at the White House who is responsible for coordinating the actions of those government agencies to make sure that they are properly integrated.”
That individual is Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, who also juggles every other threat to the homeland.
“She does have a lot on her plate,” Earnest acknowledged. “She is a highly capable individual, who can fulfill her responsibilities in terms of coordinating the government’s response, the government agencies’ response to this Ebola situation while at the same time ensuring that she is playing the role that she plays in protecting our homeland.”
Earnest said there isn’t inconsistency in the administration’s messages on Ebola — such as saying they trust local hospitals to care for Ebola patients, then sending the second nurse infected to Emory for treatment — but “an adaptation in terms of the government’s response.”
“But, again, the treatment of these individuals is gonna be guided by our medical experts and by the science,” the White House spokesman said. “And so, I guess, if you have additional questions about that, I’d encourage you to reach out to CDC.”