Republicans question federal response on Ebola

Erica Werner and Matthew Daly
Associated Press

Washington — The new Ebola infection in New York City exposed flaws in the system and raised new concerns, lawmakers said Friday, as they criticized the federal response to the outbreak and questioned top officials’ credibility.

“I can tell you it’s not working. All you need to do is look at Craig Spencer,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., naming the doctor in New York who was diagnosed with Ebola late Thursday a week after returning from Guinea. “He was tested there, it’s not working.”

Spencer, the fourth person diagnosed in the U.S., did not exhibit symptoms until Thursday and so the temperature screening in place at the five U.S. airports that receive passengers from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the three West African countries that have borne the worst of the outbreak, would not have caught him. Some lawmakers questioning administration officials at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing said that just showed that a new approach was needed.

Less than two weeks before hard-fought midterm elections, many lawmakers, especially Republicans, have called for a travel ban from the hot spots in West Africa where the deadly disease has infected roughly 10,000 people and killed about half of them. Others have suggested quarantining people for the 21-day incubation period once they arrive.

The Obama administration has resisted, saying such an approach could make things worse by limiting sorely needed supplies and medical workers to West Africa and encouraging travelers to hide their travel histories. Instead the administration has implemented new guidelines for screening all people arriving here from the hot zones and ensuring they’re all monitored by medical experts for 21 days.

“We think a travel ban would be incredibly unproductive, or counterproductive,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant Health and Human Services secretary for preparedness and response, told lawmakers Friday. “We’ve really tightened it up quite a bit and I believe it should be sufficient.”

She found unlikely support from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who broke from most in his party by declaring his opposition to a travel ban. “It sounds like a great idea, it’s a great sound bite, but … The practical reality could well be that it would be circumvented.”

But other lawmakers including Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said that anyone who travels here from West Africa should be quarantined for 21 days before even boarding a plane to the U.S.

“This can’t just be about ideology and happy talk,” Lynch said. “We need to be very deliberate (and) take it much more seriously than I’m hearing today.” Health experts say such a move would discourage needed health workers from making the trip at all.

Issa complained about wrong information and shifting standards coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the first case diagnosed in the U.S., a man who traveled from Sierra Leone to Texas and later died. He infected two nurses who cared for him. As of Friday both nurses have been declared free of the virus.

“We said we were planning to deal with infectious diseases, prepare our health care system and our doctors and nurses,” Issa said. “And in fact it appears as though we trained them but not trained them to the level we should.”

Lurie defended the government’s response.

“I think our failures largely relate to the fact that we’re learning some new things about Ebola,” she said. “Ebola’s never been in this hemisphere before, and as we’re learning those things we’re tightening up our policies and procedures as quickly as possible.”

In her prepared testimony, Lurie assured lawmakers that a large-scale outbreak of Ebola is unlikely in this country. “There is an epidemic of fear, but not of Ebola, in the United States,” she said.