Barrow, Chambliss, Isakson call for travel restrictions
Special to the Herald
U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., urged Secretary of State John Kerry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta to take immediate actions to address the growing Ebola crisis in the United States.
Barrow's letter encourages the U.S. to cease flights with countries with out-of-control Ebola infection rates and implement a 21-day delay on travel visas to the U.S. for any person traveling from, or who has traveled through, an Ebola-affected country.
The full text of the letter is below:
Dear Secretary Kerry, Director Frieden, and Administrator Huerta:
It seems we are reaching a tipping point in our efforts to combat the Ebola virus around the world and to keep it from becoming a full blown catastrophe in the United States. The American people have grave concerns about the U.S. government's handling of this crisis so far. The coming days are pivotal in our efforts to regain control of this epidemic and restore confidence in the American people. Please consider these safeguards that I think will help do both.
First, we must stop direct flights from countries with out-of-control Ebola infection rates. This is basic, with no real unmanageable consequences, and just makes too much common sense not to do. We can easily make safe, secure, alternative accommodations for aid workers and those who have justifiable emergencies. But I fear that, for someone infected with Ebola, it is too great a temptation to hop on a direct flight to the United States in hopes of being treated in an American hospital. We can't risk it.
Second, I think we should implement a 21 day delay on travel visas to the U.S. for any person traveling from, or who has traveled through, an Ebola-affected country. Such a policy would take relatively little infrastructure and manpower on our part. The prospective traveler would simply need to notify us of their intent to enter the U.S. and be prepared to document that they've spent the previous 21 days in an Ebola-free country before being allowed to enter the U.S. For the majority of travelers, this would prove to be only a limited inconvenience, and it would certainly be an effective deterrent to the spread of this disease in our country.
Lastly, I suggest we exert more formal control over the travel of those who have been exposed to Ebola, in the United States, and are at high risk for infection. It's been reported that someone who had been identified as having had a high risk of exposure was allowed to get on a plane and travel within the United States. That's inexcusable. If high risk individuals cannot be counted on to prevent unintended exposure to innocent parties, then we owe it to the potential victims of such exposure to make sure that cannot happen.
I'm confident these travel restrictions will help the efforts to combat Ebola, and that they send a strong message that we're serious about the health and safety of the American people. I hope you'll take these suggestions seriously.
Meanwhile, U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called for restricted travel from Ebola-stricken nations in West Africa to the U.S. The senators issued the following statements:
Chambliss said: "Given the recent spread of Ebola in the United States, I share the deep concerns expressed by many Georgians about the risk this deadly virus poses to our public health. To contain this disease and help prevent any additional cases in our country, I support implementing travel restrictions from Ebola-affected nations in West Africa to the United States. I believe exceptions can and should be made for essential personnel to carry out our mission of stopping the spread of Ebola at the source. Our nation continues to face a growing array of threats from around the world and must remain vigilant; I urge the administration to put in place a proactive and carefully thought out plan to protect the American people from the spread of this virus."
Isakson said: "As a member of the Senate health committee, I believe that, given the transmission of Ebola in Dallas that originated from a passenger flying from West Africa, we need to temporarily restrict nonessential travel to the United States from Ebola-affected countries. Additionally, I urge the president to take charge of coordinating and increasing the U.S. response to the growing threat of the Ebola virus to the American people. I take this situation very seriously and believe it is an urgent priority for the United States to contain this outbreak at its source, as well as to ensure that any additional cases that arise in the United States are quickly isolated."
WASHINGTON — Warning that Americans are losing faith in their government's ability to stop Ebola, Republican lawmakers on Thursday pressed for a ban on travel to the U.S. from the West African outbreak zone. The White House said other measures are more effective.
The administration spent the day trying anew to tamp down fear as the pool of Americans being monitored for symptoms expanded from Texas to Ohio. President Barack Obama said he might appoint a single official to lead the nation's efforts against the deadly disease.
While a contentious congressional hearing focused on the three cases of Ebola diagnosed within the U.S., the World Health Organization said the outbreak in West Africa was on pace to top 4,500 deaths by the end of the week.
Obama authorized a call-up of reserve and National Guard troops in case they are needed. His executive order would allow more forces than the up-to 4,000 already planned to be sent to West Africa, and for longer periods of time.
The president met into the evening with top aides and health officials at the White House, declaring afterward that he had no "philosophical objection" to imposing a travel ban on West Africa but had been told by health and security experts that it would be less effective than measures already in place — and perhaps would be counterproductive.
He said a ban could result in people trying to hide where they were coming from and thus becoming less likely to be screened.
He said it may be appropriate to appoint an additional person to lead the anti-Ebola effort in the U.S., a response to calls that he name an Ebola "czar."
Health authorities insisted anew there is virtually no risk right now to Americans beyond medical workers involved in treating Ebola cases or people who recently traveled to West Africa. Yet people across the country were quick to take precautions.
Individual schools in Akron, Ohio, suburban Cleveland and Belton, Texas, were closed for disinfecting because of fears that students or staff might have had tenuous exposure to a Texas nurse who flew across the Midwest the day before she was diagnosed with Ebola. Akron's school superintendent, David James, said the move would calm fears in the community.
In Texas, officials were asking some 75 health care workers who had contact with the man who died of Ebola in Dallas to sign legal documents agreeing to stay home. And officials expanded their airline investigation to include passengers on a flight last Friday from Dallas to Cleveland that carried a nurse later diagnosed with the disease. Passengers on the return flight on Monday already were being contacted.
In Washington, federal health officials who were called to Capitol Hill for a special hearing emphasized the importance of stopping the virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to protect Americans and the rest of the world from its spread.
"You're right, it needs to be solved in Africa. But until it is, we should not be allowing these folks in, period," replied Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. He called for a ban on the 100 to 150 people who fly into the U.S. each week from the three nations at the heart of the outbreak.
"People's lives are at stake, and the response so far has been unacceptable," declared Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. A handful of congressional Democrats also have endorsed the travel ban that's mainly been pushed by Republicans.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. was already taking the necessary steps to protect the public, because passengers are screened as they depart West Africa and most are checked for fever again when they arrive at a U.S. airport.
Earnest said the chances for a widespread outbreak in the U.S. remain "exceedingly low," despite shortcomings in the government's initial responses. Health officials said the same.
Obama, who directed his administration to respond more aggressively to the virus at home, made calls about Ebola to foreign heads of state as well as congressional leaders at home. He also called Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, where the CDC is helping to track people who may have been exposed when the Dallas nurse traveled to the Akron area to visit family.
"The president said whatever you need, we want to help," said Rob Nichols, spokesman for the Republican governor.
Frieden told lawmakers that investigators still don't know how two Dallas nurses caught Ebola while caring for a Liberian man who died at their hospital. Thomas Eric Duncan was the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States since the West African outbreak began in March.
To protect other medical workers while the investigation continues, Frieden said, the CDC is focusing on improving safety procedures.
One of the sick nurses was being moved Thursday from the Texas hospital to a specialized federal facility in Maryland. The other nurse has been transferred to an Atlanta hospital that has one of only four bio-containment units in the U.S.
Nations and global bodies continued to grapple with the crisis:
— In Sierre Leone, the government said that two cases had turned up in what was the country's last untouched district. The mountainous Koinadugu district had been the only place in Sierra Leone "where you can go and breathe a sigh of relief, said John Caulker, the executive director of the nonprofit Fambul Tok. "To know that now in the whole country no district is safe is heartrending."
— In Spain, the condition of a nursing assistant infected with Ebola at a Madrid hospital appeared to be improving, but a person who came in contact with her before she was hospitalized developed a fever and was being tested. That second person is not a health care worker, a Spanish Health Ministry spokesman said.
— In Geneva, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, paired the Ebola outbreak and the Islamic State group as "twin plagues" that will cost the world many billions of dollars to overcome.
— The United Nations made an urgent appeal for more money to fight the disease. A special U.N. trust fund launched to to provide fast and flexible funding has received $20 million in pledges, but only $100,000 in actual contributions.
— France said it will begin screening passengers who arrive at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport on the once-daily flight from Guinea's capital.
In the U.S. on Thursday, Customs and health officials at airports in Chicago, Atlanta, suburban Washington and Newark, New Jersey, were beginning to take the temperatures of passengers from the three West African countries. The screenings, using no-touch thermometers, started Saturday at New York's Kennedy International Airport.
The revelation that one of the Dallas nurses was cleared to fly on a commercial airline the day before she was diagnosed generated much criticism on Capitol Hill.
Eight people in northeast Ohio were in voluntary quarantine because they had contact with the nurse, Amber Joy Vinson, who visited family in the Akron area last weekend before flying from Cleveland back to Dallas.
Some school and hospital employees also were staying home amid concerns that they might have had contact with her, and a store where she shopped was closed Thursday as a precaution.
Still, health officials in Ohio emphasized that Vinson didn't show symptoms during her visit and therefore shouldn't have been contagious yet. The disease isn't airborne; it's spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.
As a result of the failure to protect the two nurses from infection and other mistakes, "the American public loses confidence each day," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chairman of the House panel conducting Thursday's hearing.
Frieden urged calm but also said the nation's hospitals must watch for people who might have been infected in West Africa. He said the CDC has fielded more than 300 calls from concerned doctors and public health officials, with no new Ebola cases uncovered.
Associated Press writers Emily Schmall and Nomaan Merchant in Dallas; Erica Werner, Josh Lederman and Matthew Daly in Washington; and Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.