President Obama added an afternoon Ebola meeting to his otherwise open Columbus Day schedule after a nurse was confirmed to have contracted the virus from a now-deceased Liberian patient in Dallas.
The Oval Office meeting was small, including Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden joined via phone.
The White House said that the meeting was “to receive an update on the response to the diagnosis of a second Ebola case in Dallas, Texas.”
“The President was briefed on the status of the investigation into the apparent breach in infection control protocols at the Dallas hospital and remedial actions underway to mitigate similar breaches in the future,” the readout of the meeting continued. “Secretary Burwell and Dr. Frieden described the surge in personnel and other resources to Dallas to assist in the investigation as well as other measures to heighten awareness and increase training for healthcare workers throughout the country.”
“The President reinforced that this investigation should proceed as expeditiously as possible and that lessons learned should be integrated into future response plans and disseminated to hospitals and healthcare workers nationwide.”
Obama, who has a week of fundraising activities planned as the calendar closes in on midterms, told donors at a Democratic National Committee event in L.A. on Thursday that “the likelihood of any epidemic in the United States is extraordinarily small.”
The White House also released the details of call with French President Francois Hollande, who plans to build new Ebola treatment centers in Guinea.
“On the Ebola outbreak, the two leaders agreed that more must be done, and quickly, to establish treatment facilities in the affected African nations, and that all countries must play a role to stop the spread of this disease and to save the lives of those afflicted,” the administration said. “They also discussed additional measures that may be taken to stem the spread of Ebola outside the region already affected, including passenger screening upon departure and arrival.”
And Obama spoke with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the White House said, “to review the international response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the need for more robust commitments and rapid delivery of assistance by the international community.”
“Citing the threat the epidemic poses, the President stressed the need for all UN member states to support the UN appeal, and to provide the personnel, equipment, and supplies required to stop the epidemic at its source and halt the devastating impact of this crisis on the affected countries and their citizens,” said the readout from the call. “Both leaders agreed that, given the threat posed by Ebola, at this crucial juncture members of the international community must redouble their resolve and commitment to stay the course and decisively address the Ebola crisis.”
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled together his national security team on Sunday to discuss a game plan for stopping Ebola before it comes to their borders.
“The State of Israel is prepared in order to bar the possible entry of people with Ebola, as part of our effort to defend our borders against illegal migrants and terrorism,” Netanyahu said. “This is a global plague and we are cooperating with other countries in addition to guarding our borders; we are taking a series of steps to isolate those who are ill, if they arrive, and treat them, of course, in our healthcare system. We hope that this will not be necessary but we are prepared for any eventuality.”
The CDC director told reporters today that screening of passengers coming from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had begun at JFK airport in New York, with the intention of expanding the program to Hartsfield, O’Hare, Dulles and Newark. Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan passed through Dulles on his way to Dallas.
“On the issue of banning travel, I understand that there are calls to do this. I really tried to focus on the bottom line here. The bottom line here is reducing risk to Americans. The way we’re going to reduce risk to Americans is do the steps of protection I just went through and stop it at the source in Africa,” Frieden said.
“Today, CDC has 150 of our top disease detectives throughout the three countries and many of the counties, districts, and prefectures within the three countries helping to turn the outbreak around working along with the Department of Defense, with USAID, with the World Health Organization and with many other governments which are surging in to help stop it at the source,” he continued.
“If we do things that unintentionally make it harder to get that response in, to get supplies in, that make it harder for those governments to manage, to get everything from economic activity to travel going, it’s going to become much harder to stop the outbreak at the source. If that were to happen, it would spread for more months and potentially to other countries and that would increase rather than decrease the risk to Americans. Above all, do no harm. And that’s why we want to focus on stopping the outbreak at the source.”
The UN Special Envoy on Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, told CNN International that he doesn’t think travel bans would be effective.
“People will travel, particularly if they are concerned about a disease like this. They’re frightened. They will cross road borders, they will get onto boats, they will get onto planes. And the real requirement is to test them very thoroughly before they get onto any form of transport,” Nabarro said.
Duncan was asymptomatic yet a carrier of the Ebola virus when he left Liberia, and didn’t register a temperature when screened at the airport. He also reportedly said he hadn’t had contact with Ebola patients.
“If you tried to have a blanket ban, our experience is it doesn’t work,” Nabarro continued. “All that happens is people try to get around it, they conceal their movements, they conceal their history and that can actually create a much greater likelihood of going underground. And diseases that go underground, they’re hard to control.”
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said the administration should stop flights from the affected countries “to give Dallas, Texas, and other communities a chance to catch up and work through this difficult problem.”
“They should isolate these areas,” the congressman told CNN. “It has grown the way it has because of people traveling. That is what we’re trying to deal with.”