'We Don't Have a Lot of Margin for Error': Obama Announces 'Additional Passenger Screening' After Senators' Requests
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."