After President Obama found out that a second nurse in Dallas contracted Ebola and flew on Frontier Airlines Monday, he quickly altered his schedule so he could reassure the public and announce “more aggressive” follow-up by the government’s disease detectives.
The Centers for Disease Control and Protection will respond to the next Ebola case in the United States by deploying a rapid response group, which the president likened to a SWAT team during brief remarks in the Cabinet Room. The White House predicts that additional Ebola infections will occur.
“We’re going to make sure that something like this is not repeated and that we are monitoring, supervising, overseeing in a much more aggressive way exactly what’s taking place in Dallas initially and making sure that the lessons learned are then transmitted to hospitals and clinics all across the country,” the president said.
Obama spoke at the conclusion of a nearly two-hour meeting with department heads and infectious disease experts, a session hastily convened in response to media reports of Ebola’s spread in Dallas. Officials are concerned that because two nurses who cared for a Liberian traveler at a Dallas hospital contracted the virus, other health care workers may have been exposed through errors or transmission routes that are under investigation but remain a mystery.
On Tuesday, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said an Ebola response team of experts, designed to be on the ground within 24 hours wherever a new confirmed case emerges, was a step his agency should have taken when Thomas Eric Duncan tested positive for the virus in September in Dallas during a visit to the United States. He died on Oct. 8.
To date, friends and relatives who hosted Duncan in Dallas and were in contact with him as he fell ill have shown no symptoms of infection.
“A single infection in a health care worker is unacceptable,” Frieden said Tuesday. “We are concerned if health care workers are afraid to come to work or patients are afraid to go to hospitals or health care settings, we could see wider health care impacts. That’s why it’s so important we focus on what will work here.”
The president did not unveil any new federal interventions designed to halt the transmission of the disease, now a growing epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
The CDC monitoring of people in contact with Duncan, plus those contacts now at risk from nurses Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson, has grown exponentially, especially after Vinson’s travel Monday from Cleveland to Dallas aboard Frontier Airlines Flight 1143. She departed Dallas two days after Duncan died and returned to Texas from Ohio along with 132 other passengers. The CDC now seeks to interview all passengers on that flight, but says the risk of infection is low.
CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. John LaPook reported Wednesday that Vinson repeatedly telephoned the CDC to report a fever of 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit, but was told by the agency that she could fly because her temperature was not 100.4 or higher. (A temperature of 101.5 degrees is part of the new threshold guidance issued by the CDC for airport entry screenings of passengers arriving from West Africa.)
White House officials and the CDC maintain that no person is infectious without symptoms of Ebola, and the leading symptom they point to is fever. Experts say a normal or modestly elevated temperature is not a sure-fire sign of being Ebola-free.
Medical experts who are studying the epidemic in West Africa found that in nearly 13% of cases, patients with confirmed and probable infections with Ebola never exhibited fever (defined as 100.4 and above) as a symptom of the disease. The study, sponsored by the World Health Organization and published by the New England Journal of Medicine in September, analyzed data from 3,343 confirmed and 667 probable cases of Ebola.
Republicans in Congress continued Wednesday to call for a temporary U.S. travel ban from those countries, but the administration reiterated its opposition, believing a ban would increase the spread of the disease in West Africa and eventually pose a greater threat in the United States.
In conversations Wednesday, Obama continued to urge heads of state, including his peers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France and Japan, to send more assistance to the affected African nations to do everything possible to halt the virus, which has killed nearly 5,000 people, according to the WHO.
Obama’s job approval stands at 42% in the RCP average, a vulnerable threshold in the eyes of nervous Democratic candidates and a perilous perch for the balance of his second term. Over the years, he has weathered criticism that he stubbornly refused to alter his schedule to be an aggressive rapid-responder himself—that is, a president who leaped into command at the outset of various crises.
On Wednesday, fears tied to Ebola contagion and confusion about the CDC’s ability to intercede effectively among local and state jurisdictions (and inside private medical facilities) around the country came into sharper relief.
Obama has been pilloried by GOP candidates as being weak on management and strategy. With just 20 days until the midterm elections, the White House insisted that public health concerns, not optics, forced the president to ground his flights Wednesday to New Jersey and Connecticut for campaign and fundraising events. (The White House similarly canceled Obama’s trips to Rhode Island and New York on Thursday.)
As public tensions mounted in the wake of the newest Ebola case in Texas, the president’s spokesman said Obama continues to have confidence in Frieden, who has been the public face of the government’s response to the first-ever cases of the virus in the United States.
Obama also continues to believe responsibilities for Ebola response at a handful of federal departments are both clear and effective, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. The White House continued to resist calls from GOP lawmakers to appoint a bio-defense Ebola coordinator, or ‘czar.’ If additional expertise is needed, the president will make changes, Earnest said.
Vinson was transferred from Dallas to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Wednesday at the urging of the CDC. Two other Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol, both of whom contracted Ebola in Africa, were subsequently treated at Emory and both recovered. Brantly donated blood plasma to three Ebola patients in the United States, including Dallas nurse Pham.
The other two recipients were his Samaritan’s Purse missionary colleague Dr. Rick Sacra, who recovered, and freelance NBC cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, who is still receiving care. Both Sacra and Mukpo sought help at Nebraska Medical Center, a hospital that has developed its own recognized expertise in handling patients with infectious diseases.