- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The fight against Ebola will be front and center for Congress when lawmakers return to Washington on Wednesday, scrutinizing the Obama administration’s response to the deadly virus even as the U.S. is on the path to clearing its remaining cases and doctors say they are making some headway in slowing the disease at its source in West Africa.

Top Obama administration health and homeland security officials will testify Wednesday, and other hearings follow later this week and next week as Congress tries to figure out what went wrong in the initial response at a Dallas hospital that left two nurses infected treating the country’s first patient.

“The threat of the Ebola outbreak is real and extends beyond its source in West Africa. We need to confirm that the United States is, in fact, taking every precaution and fully preparing our health care system for additional cases here at home,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, said in announcing a pair of hearings before his committee next week.

There have been positive developments in the fight, both abroad and in the U.S., where a New York doctor was declared Ebola-free on Tuesday, meaning the U.S. no longer has any active cases of someone determined to be infected with the disease.

Overseas, tracking data supplied by International SOS, a firm that coordinates medical care around the globe, found that while more than nine in 10 people in Liberia and Sierra Leone died from Ebola in June, the fatality rate had dropped to 25-50 percent by late October.

Nigeria and Senegal have been declared virus-free, and improved education and health infrastructure investments appear to be paying off.

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Yet U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and others have urged the global community to remain vigilant, with the virus causing a food crisis because agriculture and trade have been disrupted by the outbreak.

Ebola continues to crop up in new places. Aid workers had to track down potential contacts in Mali, after a 2-year-old who traveled from Guinea died of the disease there in late October, according to International SOS.

The virus receded last spring, only to spike to uncontrollable levels and land on American shores by late September. So far, the only person to die from the virus in the U.S. has been Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian national who traveled to Texas and had to be readmitted after he mistakenly was sent home from the hospital upon his first visit.

On Tuesday, New York City officials gave Dr. Craig Spencer, the fourth person to test positive for Ebola in the U.S., a cheerful send-off from Bellevue Hospital after he was pronounced virus-free.

Dr. Spencer’s recovery follows that of Dallas-area nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, who were treated and released from specially equipped hospitals in Atlanta and Bethesda, Maryland, after they contracted Ebola while treating Duncan.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, embraced Dr. Spencer in a press event touting his release from Bellevue Hospital.

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“It is a good feeling to hug a hero,” he said.

Dr. Spencer asked people to remember the plight of those still reeling from the disease.

“It is important to remember that my infection represents but a fraction of the more than 13,000 reported cases to date in West Africa — the center of the outbreak — where families are being torn apart and community are destroyed,” he said.

The doctor’s case kicked off a series quarantine measures in various states, beginning with New York and New Jersey, that some criticized as overly broad or unfair to returning health workers.

Public scrutiny of returning workers reached critical mass in a remote part of Maine earlier this month, when 33-year-old nurse Kaci Hickox resisted state officials’ attempts in the courts to quarantine her at home or keep her at least three feet away from people after she returned from treating patients in Africa. Ms. Hickox never tested positive for Ebola, and a 21-day incubation period for the virus ended on Monday.

While U.S. officials are relieved that contacts in Dallas and elsewhere have made it through monitoring periods for the disease unscathed, lawmakers remain leery of new travelers from affected regions and have pushed for a travel ban.

The White House has resisted those calls, saying it could hamper the relief effort or compel travelers to sneak into the U.S. and become untraceable.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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