This past week as the Ebola was spreading in health care workers who treated Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, and the Obama Administration, and the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) responses where criticized, President Barack Obama used his weekly address released on Saturday morning, Oct. 18, 2014 to calm the American public. President Obama announced that he would not support a travel ban from West Africa, despite calls from Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH and Congressional Republicans and some Democrats to impose a ban on issuing travel visas to affected West African countries.
In the weekly address, entitled “What You Need To Know About Ebola” Obama tried minimize the situation, and debunk what he believes are myths regarding the disease in the country. Obama declared; “This is a serious disease, but we can’t give in to hysteria or fear-because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need.” The president then tried to clear up the facts on three issues relating to Ebola in the US. Number one, “what we’re seeing now is not an “outbreak” or an “epidemic” of Ebola in America.” Although Obama acknowledged that it is unfortunate the three people that had contracted the disease, but there are more than 300,000 Americans.
Number two, the president tried to educate Americans how in fact Ebola is transmitted because “Ebola is actually a difficult disease to catch.” President Obama even gave examples where he had been in contact with health care workers and a survivor of the disease recounting, “I’ve met and hugged some of the doctors and nurses who’ve treated Ebola patients. I’ve met with an Ebola patient who recovered, right in the Oval Office. And I’m fine.”
President Obama also tried to assure the American public that the government has the situation under control and that it would not be an outbreak. Lastly, Obama explained, “we know how to fight this disease. We know the protocols. And we know that when they’re followed, they work.” The president gave an example five health care workers, which had contracted the disease, but had been treated successfully; “So far, five Americans who got infected with Ebola in West Africa have been brought back to the United States-and all five have been treated safely, without infecting healthcare workers. With those thin declarations, maybe Obama was trying to reassure himself as to the country’s response to an unprecedented situation, considering how the situation was bungled in Texas when dealing with Duncan.
Additionally, the president listed all the ways the administration is working to respond effectively to the disease and crisis. That the CDC is working to track down and monitor the most recent case, nurse Amber Vinson’s contacts in Cleveland where she was visiting last weekend while already having symptoms, and on her flights to and from Dallas to Cleveland. The CDC is also teaching health care workers how not to contract the disease while caring for a patient. As Obama described the CDC is “sharing lessons learned so other hospitals don’t repeat the mistakes that happened in Dallas.”
The president also mentioned his order that “new Ebola rapid response teams” will be dispatched to hospitals where there is any cases, in order to “quickly to help hospitals implement the right protocols.” The Pentagon and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel formally announced on Sunday, Oct. 19, the creation of a military rapid response team that would be able to be dispatched to any hospital in the country within short notice of 72 hours if they believe they have a potential Ebola case on their hands. The team will include five doctors, 20 nurses, and five trainers that would train protocol to the hospital with the possible case to ensure no other health care workers contract the disease. Additionally, the CDC is issuing new guidelines for health care workers detailing the protocols they must follow, including fully body suits, and they have to be monitored when they remove the coverings to ensure they following to correct procedure to make they are not putting themselves at risk.
Proper protocol training is of the utmost importance to ensure the disease does not spread further after two nurses Nina Pham, 26 and Amber Vinson, 29 caught the disease at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas from treating Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who first brought the disease to the United States and died on Oct. 8, 2014. Both nurses treated Duncan from the time he had been brought into the hospital the second time, even before his test came in positive. Texas Health Presbyterian did not follow proper protocol and procedures in diagnosing, isolating and treating Duncan. The hospital’s nurses were not trained and there were no standard used in protective gear especially at the start of his treatment, everything was makeshift, this led to the disease spreading, as well as the “hysteria” in the country. Because of the mess in the Presbyterian, both Pham and Vinson were transferred to hospitals trained to handle such infectious diseases for their treatment. Vinson was sent to Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta, Georgia while Pham was sent to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland.
Obama also mentioned the screening measures at the major airports where passengers fly in from affected West African countries, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. There will be intense screenings at the major airports that serve as entry points for those travelling from the affected countries, including New York’s Kennedy International, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, Newark Liberty and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airports. In addition to the screenings, all the approximately 76 health care workers that were involved with treating Duncan have been put on no fly lists, and are not allowed to travel until after the 21-day quarantine. This is especially important after Vinson was allowed by the CDC to fly to and from Dallas to Cleveland even though she was already experiencing symptoms and had a mild fever on her return trip, and after a lab worker fell ill but not with Ebola, on a Carnival cruise ship heading to Belize, but forced to return to Texas.
The president promised to implement new measures if it become necessary, but will not impose a travel ban to those countries. Obama rationalized the reason why, stating; “we can’t just cut ourselves off from West Africa, where this disease is raging.” The president stated that a travel ban would lead to the disease spreading more, because “Experience shows that it could also cause people in the affected region to change their travel, to evade screening, and make the disease even harder to track.”
President Obama canceled his campaign travel schedule on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 15 and 16 to hold a cabinet level meeting, speak to international leaders, and plan an effective response to the growing problem with the Ebola in Texas. As Obama expressed after the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 15 “we are taking this very seriously at the highest levels of government.” On Thursday, Oct. 16, Obama expressed in remarks to the nation that he was open to a travel ban if was necessary, but the president did not think it would be, and was confident that the disease would not become an “outbreak” in the US. Obama stated, “I am absolutely confident that we can prevent a serious outbreak of the disease here in the United States. But it becomes more difficult to do so if this epidemic of Ebola rages out of control in West Africa. If it does, it will spread globally.” In those remarks, the president also tried to reassure the American public there was nothing to be worried about, and there is no Ebola outbreak in the country.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a Congressional hearing on Thursday, Oct. 16, on the government’s Ebola response where primarily the CDC and NIH were questioned. When Tim Murphy, R-PA opened the hearing he declared, “Mistakes have been made. Trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning. That trust must be restored.” At the heart of the testimony was that of CDC head Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden. Lawmakers are blaming Friedan, almost as much as they are President Obama. The CDC and NIH oppose any travel ban, with Frieden suggesting at the hearing that any ban would make it harder to screen for the disease at airports, because those actually coming from those countries will travel alternate, routes, lie about the country origins, and might end up spreading the disease further, putting more Americans at risk. Frieden did however, admit, “We will consider any options to better protect Americans.”
Congressional Republicans and Democrats are looking for a series of measures to be imposed to deal with the outbreak, primarily a travel ban from the countries at the heart of the Ebola outbreak. Rep. Tim Murphy is requesting that the administration impose mandatory 21-day quarantines for health care workers who dealt with Ebola patients, and those entering the country from West Africa. Part of the rules would be “a prohibition of domestic public travel regardless of assumptions that the treating professionals wore or removed all personal protective equipment properly.” There is a call to fire CDC director Frieden, even Obama is not satisfied with his job performance. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX also expressed that Congress should return for an emergency session to deal with the growing crisis.
Speaker of the House Boehner and Congressional lawmakers have been calling for a travelling ban from the affected West Africa countries. Nearly 70 lawmakers are looking for a travel ban and visa restrictions, and has bipartisan support, ABC News notes “55 members of the House (six Democrats, 49 GOP) and at least 11 senators (one Democrat, 10 Republicans)” want restrictions. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee even sent Obama a letter requesting a travel ban. Boehner issued a statement on Wednesday, Oct. 15 arguing that the president to institute a ban, writing, “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.” Boehner concluded that “We will continue to press the administration for better information about what steps will be taken to protect the American people, including our troops, from this deadly virus.”
Three Republican Congressman are even planning to introduce legislation aimed at banning the issuing travel visas to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and any other other country that might see an outbreak of the disease. There will be two bills introduced, one a partnership of two representatives from Texas, Kenny Marchant and Sam Johnson, and a separate one by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-FL. Ross’ bill will “restrict all commercial flights from traveling to and from Ebola affected countries until the virus is declared to be contained and no longer a threat.” They intend to introduce their bills, when Congress resumes after the midterm elections on Nov. 12.
Although President Obama is telling Americans to be calm, he himself is far from that. Cabinet members said he was actually angry at this past week’s cabinet meeting held on Wednesday, Oct. 15. The president criticized the government’s response saying; “It’s not tight,” while one senior official according to the New York Times revealed that Obama “was not satisfied with the response.” President Obama like many lawmakers in Congress is placing most of the blame on the CDC.
To appear as if he actively trying to deal with the crisis, on Friday, Oct. 17 President Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden’s former Chief of Staff Ron Klain to be his Ebola “czar” and coordinate the administration’s response. Klain, a lawyer was also Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff and has plenty of experience with crisis management, but non with health care. That lack of experience is a new source of criticism for Obama and his administration by Congressional Republicans. Klain will be working under Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco, who had previously been dealing with the interagency response.
- President Barack Obama’s Weekly Address: What You Need To Know About Ebola, Oct. 18, 2014 –Transcript | mp4 | mp3
- Remarks by President Barack Obama After Meeting on the Government’s Response to Ebola, Oct. 16, 2014
- Remarks by the President After Meeting on the Government’s Response to Ebola, Oct. 15, 2014
- Timeline: The struggle to stop Ebola, The Hill, Oct, 15, 2014
- A timeline of the 2014 Ebola crisis, Haaretz, Oct. 10, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.