WASHINGTON — Banning air travel to the United States from the West African countries affected by Ebola could cause people to travel by other means that cannot be monitored, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Thursday.
Frieden was responding to questions from Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, who said he didn’t understand why airline passengers’ travel history shouldn’t keep them out of the U.S.
“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, we won’t be able, as we do currently, to take a detailed history to see if they were exposed when they arrive,” Frieden said.
He said health officials also wouldn’t be able to impose conditional release or active monitoring on exposed passengers.
Congress was told at the hearing that Ebola patient Nina Pham is to be moved to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda for state of the art care. Pham is the first nurse confirmed to have contracted Ebola in Texas after treating patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who has since died.
Amber Vinson, a second health care worker who helped treat Duncan, has also been confirmed to have the disease, and has been moved to Atlanta’s Emory University for treatment.
Duncan’s treatment, as well as the fact that two of his nurses contracted Ebola, has created new questions about whether the United States is as ready as health officials first said.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, and the ranking member of the subcommittee, said it “would not be wrong to say that the first case of Ebola was mismanaged.”
“We need to find out why this hospital was unprepared and if others are, too,” DeGette said. “And we need to make sure that the CDC is filling these readiness gaps.”
The CDC’s Frieden said “there are no shortcuts to controlling Ebola and it is not easy to control it.”
“Our top priority, our focus is to work 24/7 to protect Americans, that is our mission,” he said.
Frieden said his organization is doing everything from helping affected African countries conduct exit screening on travelers to fielding phone calls directly from hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the U.S. Earlier this week, the CDC announced it would be deploying specialized teams to any confirmed Ebola cases moving forward.
Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, who didn’t ask any questions at the hearing, said in an emailed statement that it “highlighted the ongoing work of our top scientists and public health officials and the improvements they’re making in responding to the Ebola virus.”
“We must look to these experts to prevent additional cases in the United States and to manage the humanitarian crisis in Africa,” Sarbanes said.
On Thursday, Washington-Dulles International Airport began increased screening for Ebola, along with New York’s JFK, Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and Newark’s Liberty. So far, Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport has not been asked to do the same.
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said the decision to screen for Ebola at airports is a decision made by the CDC and Customs and Border Patrol of the Department of Homeland Security.
“They’re the ones that make the decisions, they’re the ones watching the illness,” Dean said, who noted that there are no nonstop flights from West Africa to BWI. In choosing the five airports that would begin enhanced Ebola screening, the CDC said that more than 94 percent of passengers from the affected West African countries pass through those airports.
However, Dean said BWI “has specific protocols in place regarding the treatment of arriving passengers that may show symptoms of communicable diseases” and that these were developed years ago for other illnesses.
Maryland state health officials have said they are prepared for the possibility of an Ebola infection.
At a press conference earlier this month, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said that while there is a lot of preparation happening, there are also protocols and procedures already in place to deal with such a situation.
“We have a health care system that is fully able to identify and respond to a whole range of potential issues, including Ebola virus,” Sharfstein said.
To date, there have been no confirmed Ebola cases in Maryland, however, state health officials say it is “certainly possible” the state may get one.