Just hours before news broke that a New York physician who had been treating patients in Guinea tested positive for Ebola, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans sent President Obama a letter asking exactly what’s going on with his preparation.
The committee was the first congressional panel to hold a recess hearing since Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan tested positive for the virus in Dallas.
Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) Oversight and Government Reform Committee will be holding a hearing tomorrow morning, yet unlike the E&C hearing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden isn’t scheduled to testify. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Ebola czar Ron Klain won’t be testifying because he’s new on the job.
“So he’s very focused on the task in front of him, and we have heard expressions of concern from Democrats and Republicans in Congress about the need for the federal government and the international community to deal with the very serious threat of Ebola,” Earnest said.
The letter from the E&C Republicans offers recommendations: “We share the interest of the American people in using the most effective tools – including travel restrictions – to prevent additional Ebola infections here in the U.S., and we encourage you to examine all such options as quickly as possible.”
Initial reports suggest that New York physician Craig Spencer, 33, who was volunteering with Doctors Without Borders, did not self-quarantine after returning to the U.S. on Oct. 17, and was taking an Uber cab, riding the subway and hanging out at a bowling alley the day before seeking medical attention for a 103-degree fever, pains and diarrhea.
Spencer had posted on his Facebook page a photo of himself in full protective gear. His Harlem apartment was sealed off and his girlfriend is under quarantine.
“So that we may better understand the facts and analysis underlying your current position, please advise whether the White House has any analysis or modeling relating to the claim that restricting travel of foreign-national tourists from the Ebola-affected countries would increase the risk of importation of Ebola cases into the U.S.,” the 28 lawmakers wrote. “If so, please provide this information and/or explain how the White House is coordinating the collection of such information.”
“Please share all available information regarding how the White House is coordinating efforts within the Executive Branch related to diagnostic testing (including rapid tests) for Ebola, what process is or will be used to assess the information that is gathered, and what process will be used to help expedite deployment of rapid diagnostic testing for Ebola.”
They requested “any information, analysis, or modeling of how many actual Ebola cases can be expected to be imported into the U.S. over the next six months and/or how the White House is coordinating the collection of such information.”
“We also request any information about the capacity of the U.S. public health system (including the state and local public health agencies) and health care facilities to handle Ebola cases in the U.S., including cases involving U.S. medical and military personnel brought over from West Africa,” the letter continued. “With respect to U.S. medical and military personnel, we are also interested in the capacity of U.S. agencies and/or contractors for their transport.”
Appearing with Klain at a White House meeting on Wednesday, Obama called Ebola “so hard to catch, although it obviously is very virulent.”
“I’m, you know, confident that over the course of several weeks and months, each hospital, working in conjunction with public health officials in those states, are going to be able to train and develop the kinds of systems that assure that people are prepared if and when a case like this comes up, and that ultimately is going to be the most important thing,” Obama said. “You know, this is a disease where if it’s caught early and the hospital knows what to do early, doesn’t present a massive risk of spreading.”
“…If there’s a silver lining in all the attention that the Ebola situation has received over the last several weeks, it’s a reminder of how important our public health systems are. And in many ways, what this has done is elevated that importance.”
UPDATE 10 p.m.: At a late-night press conference, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said “there is no reason for New Yorkers to be alarmed,” and stressed that a medical team is tracking down people who may have come into contact with Spencer.
“We are as ready as one can be for this circumstance,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, adding it was fortunate that it was a doctor who was able to recognize the symptoms when he came down sick.
Cuomo said he spoke with Klain. “The more facts you know, the less frightening this situation is,” he said.
The governor said four people were being looked at as having close contact with Spencer.
The CDC said in a statement that Spencer went through the new enhanced screening at JFK Airport for travelers coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. “He went through multiple layers of screening and did not have a fever or other symptoms of illness.”