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|Elise Vliebeck||October 16th 2014|
Debate over banning travel from West Africa dominated a House hearing on Ebola Thursday as Republicans clashed with federal health officials on the need to suspend flights.
"Administration officials still refuse to consider any travel restrictions for the more than 1,000 travelers a week entering the U.S. from Ebola hot zones," said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
"Screening and self-reporting at airports have been a demonstrated failure, yet the administration continues to advance a contradictory reason for this failed policy that frankly doesn't make sense."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Thomas Frieden replied that banning travel would heighten Ebola's risk to Americans by pushing West Africans to enter the United States from countries where no screenings are in place or triggered once travelers reach the United States.
Under a barrage of questions from Murphy, Frieden said a travel ban will remain on the table along with "any options to better protect Americans." But he pushed back hard against the idea a ban would help.
"Right now, we know who is coming in," Frieden told lawmakers in the standing-room-only hearing.
"If we tried to eliminate travel … we won't be able to check them for fever when they leave. We won't be able to check for fever when they arrive. We won't be able to take a detailed travel history. We won't be able to obtain detailed locating information to pass it to local public health officials."
A Customs and Border Protection official agreed, saying a travel ban would make it harder for his agency to track possible Ebola cases. "It is easier to manage and control it when we know where people are coming from voluntarily and not trying to deceive us," said John Wagner, acting assistant commissioner in the Office of Field Operations.
Republicans have rallied behind the issue as a way to rebuke the Obama administration's handling of Ebola less than a month before the midterm elections. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the idea of a travel ban, and House Republicans are beginning to show signs that they will emphasize the issue in the lame-duck session.
Separate from Thursday's hearing, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) announced that he will soon introduce legislation to restrict flights. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) called for a vote in the hearing. "People are asking that we do that, and they are exactly correct to make that request," said Burgess. The remarks came on the heels of a statement by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saying the administration should "absolutely consider" a flight ban.
Ebola became top national news in late September when a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, traveled to Dallas and sought care for the virus.
Subsequent failures in his treatment at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital have raised questions about the CDC's oversight of the response. Duncan died Oct. 8.
The spread of Ebola to two additional healthcare workers, both diagnosed in the last week, are only deepening concerns that the government and U.S. health system are not fully prepared to deal with highly infectious diseases.
The CDC is also under pressure to explain why the second healthcare worker was permitted to travel on a commercial flight on Monday despite signs of a developing fever.
The workers, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, are being transferred from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and will receive care at the National Institutes of Health and Emory University Hospital, respectively.
Lawmakers in both parties criticized the government's response to Ebola on Thursday and called for significant improvements to stop its spread in Dallas and elsewhere.
“It would be an understatement to say that the response to the first U.S.-based patient has been mismanaged, causing risk to scores of additional people,” said subcommittee ranking member Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).
Two top Senate candidates — Reps. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) — left the campaign trail to attend the hearing and pose questions.
“I am greatly concerned … that the administration did not act fast enough when responding in Texas,” said Braley, who is locked in a tight race against Republican Joni Ernst.
Over the course of roughly three hours, discussion at the hearing ranged from basic questions about how Ebola is transmitted to the personal protective gear used in Dallas to the involvement of military personnel in West Africa.
While lawmakers praised the two Dallas healthcare workers infected with Ebola, the cases received relatively little time compared with debate over a travel ban.
Frieden, calm under questioning, said concern about the Dallas cases is "understandable."
He acknowledged that the CDC told the second worker she could board a commercial flight on Monday because, contrary to reports, she "reported no symptoms."
"The CDC works 24-7 to protect Americans … We're always open to new ideas," he told lawmakers.
"There are no shortcuts in the control of Ebola and it is not easy to control it. To protect the United States, we have to stop it at the source."
Elise Vliebeck writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.