- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2014

President Obama authorized calling up military reserves to help combat Ebola on Thursday, and one of the two nurses who contracted the disease in the U.S. was transferred from Texas to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, as federal officials continued to scramble to gain ground on the disease here and the outbreak abroad.

But the administration’s top health officials were reluctant to embrace a travel ban on citizens of the most affected countries, saying limited official options will only force travelers to go underground to cross borders.

With air travel, the U.S. tries to spot travelers who come from or through Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, take their temperatures and try to monitor them later. If they are banned from traveling to the U.S., they will take more circuitous routes that get past screenings, said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That explanation didn’t sit well with a growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who said the U.S. is lagging behind dozens of other countries that have instituted bans.

“What we’re asking for may amount to an inconvenience for some. The alternative is illness and deaths for some,” said Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who heads a key House investigative subcommittee that heard testimony from Dr. Frieden and other top health officials Thursday.

Indeed, The Associated Press reported that some of the dozens of countries that have imposed travel bans said they helped prevent the spread of Ebola within their borders. Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and the Ivory Coast, which share land borders with one or more of the three afflicted African nations, have imposed such bans.

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The AP said authorities in Senegal managed to find and isolate one man with Ebola who jumped the border with Guinea in August, and the country is about to be officially declared by the World Health Organization to be free of the disease.

Other African countries halted flights. Nigeria had a case that arrived via air travel and transmitted the disease, but was able to contain it. Nigeria also is about to be declared Ebola-free.

Fears continue to grip the U.S., with hospitals taking the temperatures of patients who traveled to affected parts of West Africa in recent weeks. A female inmate at a jail in Loudoun County, Virginia, was taken to a hospital for testing, but doctors said the probability she had the disease was low.

Several Americans remain in quarantine after having come into contact with those who have contracted the disease.

As fear of Ebola spreads, Mr. Obama and his team have struggled to gain a handle on the outbreaks — from a medical and a leadership standpoint.

The president authorized the Pentagon to call on military reserves to supplement the thousands of U.S. troops sent to West Africa, giving the Defense Department more options if it needs them.

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said the president needs to create an Ebola “war room” at the White House and tap a single person to deal with the situation. He suggested Bush administration Surgeon General Richard Carmona.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Mr. Nelson said. “This person should be at least temporarily based in a White House war room with direct authority from the president.”

Thursday evening, Mr. Obama signaled that he may welcome an Ebola czar and did not categorically rule out a travel ban, though he sounded skeptical.

“It may make sense for us to have one person in part just so that after this initial surge of activity we can have a more regular process, just to make sure that we’re crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s going forward,” the president said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest assured Americans that the chances for a broader outbreak are slim, and said the administration has confidence in the screenings of travelers at five U.S. airports and the ability of U.S. medical personnel to treat cases already in the country.

Dr. Frieden said he is confident that Ebola can be contained notwithstanding the two nurses who have contracted the disease while treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who evaded U.S. airport checks and carried the disease into the country.

“There really is a lot we know about Ebola. CDC has an entire branch, entire group of professionals who spend their careers working on Ebola and other similar infections. They go out and stop outbreaks all the time,” Dr. Frieden said. “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.”

Despite his assurances, Dr. Frieden stumbled through Thursday’s appearance before Congress. He was unable to say what went wrong at Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital, and didn’t know why the CDC allowed one of the two health workers to get on an airplane and fly to Ohio while she may have been contagious.

Dr. Frieden also said a travel ban could end up being more dangerous than allowing open travel because West Africans might try to sneak across borders to avoid the ban.

He said allowing West Africans into the U.S. funnels 94 percent of them to five airports, where federal authorities have stepped up travel checks, including taking temperatures and asking for histories.

“We won’t be able to check them for fever when they leave. We won’t be able to check them for fever when they arrive,” he said.

Rep. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, mocked that logic.

“Their reasons today are basically the same thing as saying we should make sure all children with chickenpox should stay in school so we know who they are,” he said. “It simply makes no sense.”

After meeting with health officials at the White House on Thursday evening, Mr. Obama said he would consider a travel ban if he thought it would work.

“I do not have a philosophical objection to a travel ban if that is the thing that is going to keep the American people safe,” he said. “It is currently the judgment of all those who have been involved that a flat-out travel ban is not the best way to go.”

Democratic leaders argue that the issue is a matter of money. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, issued a call Thursday for lawmakers who handle government spending to return to Washington and convene hearings to explore whether the CDC and the NIH have been shortchanged in recent years.

The office of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, accused Democrats of “political opportunism” with the money attack.

Republicans said Congress gave the CDC more money this year than Mr. Obama requested and blamed the president for suggesting the budget sequesters were responsible for trimming NIH funding.

A Washington Times analysis, meanwhile, found that funding for the specific CDC and NIH branches responsible for Ebola has steadily increased.

Given the chance to beg for more money from Congress, Dr. Frieden declined, saying they are thankful for the infusion of resources that the government has provided.

Tom Howell Jr., Ben Wolfgang and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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