U.S. health officials grilled on Ebola at congressional hearing

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — A House panel sharply questioned health officials Thursday over the U.S. response to the Ebola virus, as well as steps to prevent an outbreak of the disease in the United States.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden and other government officials faced tough questions from members of both parties after a second Texas nurse was diagnosed with Ebola, but the line of questioning from Republicans and Democrats on the investigative committee pushed two contrasting paths to keep the disease from spreading in the U.S.

Republicans again called for travel restrictions to prevent new Ebola cases from coming to U.S. shores while Democrats provided backup for the Obama administration and gave health officials, including Frieden, a chance to explain why a ban would not be effective and could, in fact, make the situation worse.

Rep. Tim Murphy, the Republican who chaired the hearing, asked the CDC director how the Texas nurse who treated the only patient to have died in the U.S. of Ebola was able to board a plane after checking in with the Center. He also raised questions about policies to keep Ebola off of U.S. soil.

“The trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning,” Murphy said, adding that the U.S. should “do everything in our power to keep the American people safe from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.”

Murphy said a ban on travelers from West Africa could keep the disease from spreading further in the U.S and said that screening patients for fever is not enough to present a disease, citing a study that about 13% of patients infected with Ebola in West Africa had no fever.

Frieden insisted that current screenings at U.S and West African airports were sufficient to protect Americans, but said he would “consider any options to better protect Americans.

The ranking Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette agreed with Friden that a travel ban would be effective and said that while another person with Ebola symptoms will likely land at a U.S. hospital, the American health system can prevent the disease from spreading.

“We should not panic. We know how to stop Ebola outbreaks,” she said. “The best way to stop Ebola is to fight it in Africa.”

Murphy suggested the administration would not establish a ban to avoid hurting “fledgling democracies” in West Africa, but said that shouldn’t be a concern for American officials as they look to protect Americans.

Rep. Fred Upton, the full committee’s chairman, suggested banning people who have been in the most affected West African nations from entering the U.S. to keep those who may have been infected with Ebola but haven’t yet showed symptoms of the disease at bay.

“I just don’t understand [how] we can’t look at one’s travel history and say, ‘no, you’re not coming here, not until this situation’ — you’re right it needs to be solved in Africa, but until it is we should not be allowing these folks in. Period,” Upton said.

But Frieden said a ban could encourage people in West Africa to take advantage of porous borders in the region and get to the United States another way, which would undermine U.S. efforts to screen patients at airports and be able to track and monitor potentially infected people.

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman used some of their time during the hearing to blame spending cuts for undercutting the Centers for Disease Control and National Institute of Health’s ability to fight the disease.

Waxman noted that the CDC budget has dropped by 12% since 2006 and that the public health emergency preparedness fund has been cut to $612 million from $1 billion in 2002.

Waxman also used his time during the hearing to feed questions to Frieden and infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health to push their explanation of the unintended consequences of imposing a travel ban.

“It’s certainly understandable how someone might come to a conclusion that the best approach would be to just seal off the border from those countries,” Fauci said. “[A travel ban would lead to] a big web of things we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, picked up on Frieden’s “porous borders” comment thinking the CDC director was referring to the U.S.’s borders and asked if the U.S. should “worry about having an unsecured southern and northern border.”

“Oh you’re referring to that border and not our porous border,” Blackburn said after Frieden corrected her.

In his opening remarks, Frieden also said the U.S. has helped implement effective airport screenings at airports in affected countries and noted that those screenings identified 74 people with fever in September. He also noted his agency’s heightened efforts to increase awareness among physicians about how to identify Ebola.

A second health care worker was diagnosed with Ebola on Wednesday. Amber Vinson, 29, works as a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was treated. Duncan died last week. But many are questioning how Vinson was able to board a commercial flight and travel back and forth to Ohio after she was being monitored as part of the team that cared for Duncan.

Vinson was moved from Dallas to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Wednesday, where two others who contracted Ebola were treated. But Frieden said that Vinson should never have traveled on a commercial plane.

Nina Pham, a nurse who also treated Duncan, was the first at the Dallas Hospital to be diagnosed with Ebola, but her condition has improved, and she is being transfered to NIH in Maryland.

House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement late Wednesday, “A temporary ban on travel to the United States from countries afflicted with the virus is something that the president should absolutely consider along with any other appropriate actions as doubts about the security of our air travel systems grow.”

So far Administration officials have cautioned that putting a ban in place could complicate the ability to get supplies and personnel to the affected region, and make it harder to stop the spread of the disease.

The Texas hospital where Duncan was treated has been criticized for how it responded to Duncan’s symptoms, and for failing to put protocols in place to protect those health care workers who came in contact with him.

In prepared testimony, Daniel Varga, the Chief Clinical Officer for the Texas company that includes Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, apologized to the House committee.

“Unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes. We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry,” Varga said.

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