CDC Official Argues Travel Ban Would Make Ebola Grow, 'Spill Over More Into the U.S.'

In a transit lounge of the airport where Liberian Thomas Earl Duncan touched down in Dallas carrying the Ebola virus last month, the House Homeland Security Committee heard today why administration officials are not angling for a travel ban from West African countries that comprise the epicenter of the outbreak.

Dr. Toby Merlin, director of the Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infection at the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, argued that restricting travelers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone would make the problem worse.

"We feel that that would cause the disease to grow in that area and just spill over into other countries and then spill over more into the U.S.," Merlin said. "And the real opportunity now is to put out that disease there. And every travel restriction that's been placed on travel into that area has interfered with people who are trying to help not being able to get there -- now either travel restrictions or reduction in air travel."

"And it's not just the U.S. Military, you know, it's people from Europe, it's people from China, it's people from Cuba, who are trying to get there to help. And it would make doing what we need to do harder. And that's why we ask the American people's understanding of that."

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) noted that "you don't have to have commercial flights to send flights into a country."

"If we were really treating this as a public health issue, why -- why would we not immediately stop these flights? And then, on a case-by-case basis, send equipment and people as necessary and, on a case-by-case basis, allow people to come out?" Barton asked.

"Why do we have to have commercial flights that, under the best of screening procedures that you've talked about, you're almost guaranteed mathematically to miss some people? So with due respect, I don't accept that answer, we can't stop flights simply because we need to get people in."

Merlin replied that "our experience has been that when there are interruptions in air travel, it impedes the public health response."

"And although there might be workarounds, like military transport, that's difficult and it's -- and right now, time is of the essence in what we do," he said.

Health workers, including Ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly, have complained that the response from the U.S. and other countries was far too slow to begin with. The first case occurred in Guinea last December and spread to the capital of Liberia by June.

Dr. Kathryn Brinsfield, acting assistant secretary and chief medical officer in the Office of Health Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, said they have to "defer to our colleagues at State" when it comes to discussion of flight restrictions.

"Who makes the decision?" Barton pressed. "Is it the president or the secretary of State or the Homeland Security or -- who makes that decision?"

"I would defer to the interagency process that's ongoing under the -- under the president on this one," Brinsfield replied. "I would say that there are many different actions that you've discussed here, one related to visas, one related to flights landing. Those are different authorities."

Acting Assistant Commissioner John Wagner of Customs and Border Protection suggested "it's a question more for the airlines and the airport authorities on what business they choose to do or not do."

"I would have to defer on them on what business decisions they make and where to fly to and which airlines they go to," Wagner said.