House Republicans demanded a travel ban from Ebola-ravaged West Africa Thursday, calling it the only sure way to protect Americans from the virus’s deadly reach. Administration officials resisted, as anxiety over the disease raced through the country and rattled the White House and Capitol Hill.
At a tense congressional hearing, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered assurances that Americans are safe and there will be no widespread Ebola outbreak here. A day after a second nurse was found to test positive after treating a patient in Dallas who later died, Dr. Thomas Frieden defended the government’s response, even while acknowledging that protocols evolved as the nurses fell ill.
“There’s zero doubt in my mind that barring a mutation which changes it —which we don’t think is likely — there will not be a large outbreak in the U.S.,” Frieden told members of the Energy and Commerce Committee who’d returned from the campaign trail for a specially convened hearing less than a month from Election Day. “We know how to control Ebola, even in this period.”
It wasn’t enough to quiet lawmakers’ concerns as they reported growing fears from their constituents in the wake of news that one of the nurses had been cleared by the CDC to travel on a commercial plane even after registering a slightly elevated fever. A small handful of schools were closed in Ohio and Texas amid fears that students or staff may have had contact with her.
“People are scared,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the panel’s chairman. “People’s lives are at stake, and the response so far has been unacceptable.”
Upton and other Republicans said the administration should ban travel from the hardest hit nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and quarantine U.S. citizens arriving from there.
“You’re right, it needs to be solved in Africa. But until it is, we should not be allowing these folks in, period,” Upton told Frieden.
Frieden said that 100 to 150 people daily arrive from “hot zones” into the U.S. The CDC has implemented enhanced screening at the five U.S. airports where over 94 percent of those travelers arrive.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest a travel ban was not under consideration, and he suggested it could actually make things worse by giving people an incentive to “go underground,” evade screening and conceal their travel history.
“And that means it would be much harder for us to keep tabs on these individuals and make sure that they get the screening that’s needed,” he said.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., mocked that reasoning. “That’s like saying all children with chicken pox should stay in school so we know where they are,” he told reporters after the hearing.
Despite the administration’s reluctance, “Travel restrictions are coming,” predicted Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo.
Frieden left the door open, saying the administration would consider any options to better protect Americans. President Barack Obama canceled his own travel plans for the second day in the row to stay in Washington.
A leader of the Texas hospital system apologized to lawmakers for failures, including the initial misdiagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan even after he reported traveling from Liberia. Duncan later died.
And Frieden raised alarms of his own about the risk to this country if the raging epidemic in West Africa, which has already claimed more than 4,000 lives, spreads even more. “If this were to happen it could become a threat to our health system and the health care we give for a long time to come,” he said.
Gardner was one of two House members in highly contested Senate races who took a break from campaigning two attend the hearing. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, also was present.
Some Democrats complained that budget cuts are partially to blame for the crisis. Funding for the agencies responsible for dealing with Ebola has declined slightly in recent years as House Republicans forced cuts to domestic agency budgets upon the administration. Republicans note that Obama has signed off on any cuts.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Lauran Neergaard, Josh Lederman and Connie Cass contributed to this report.