WASHINGTON – Members of Congress harshly criticized the Obama Administration’s for failing to give the American people a sense of security and protection in its handling of the Ebola virus during a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing Friday.
“I think we all know the system is not yet refined to where we can say that it is working properly,” said Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, addressing officials from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
The hearing came just a day after Dr. Craig Spencer, a physician in New York, became the fourth confirmed Ebola case in the U.S. He contracted the disease after working with patients in West Africa with Doctors Without Borders, an organization that does medical work all over the world.
Spencer is now being treated at New York’s Bellevue Hospital.
Several members were especially concerned by President Barack Obama’s choice of Ron Klain, a lawyer and former chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden, as Ebola czar.
Issa said Obama’s appointment “sadly shows that the administration has, on the one hand, recognized the missteps, and on the other hand, is not prepared to put a known leader in charge or, in fact, a medical professional in charge.”
Klain, who started as Ebola czar Wednesday, declined to testify at the hearing.
After the hearing, which got heated at times, Ranking Committee Member and Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said finger pointing would just prevent things from getting done.
“We’re in a political season and you’ve got elections only a few days away,” Cummings said. “But as I said from the very beginning, this issue is so crucial that we must not only move to common ground, we must move to higher ground.”
The White House dismissed the criticisms by House Republicans, even poking fun at Issa for his mispronunciation of the word Ebola during the hearing Friday.
“It does seem that most of the criticism was registered by somebody who struggled to pronounce the name of the virus at the hearing,” said White House Spokesman Josh Earnest, at a briefing with reporters.
The committee also grilled officials about DOD quarantine protocols for service members and transportation back to the U.S. for troops who may contract Ebola while working in West Africa. Members also wanted answers about budget issues at the National Institutes of Health which they said slowed development of an Ebola vaccine.
There was once again a call for a travel ban on passengers from the three most Ebola-affected West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But medical officials have said a travel ban would only make things worse because it would make it more difficult to track travelers.
A couple of witnesses at the hearing also criticized the Obama Administration for not being sufficiently prepared.
John Roth, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, presented a report that found the department mismanaged the federal government’s stockpile of supplies to handle a pandemic. Not only did DHS not adequately conduct a needs assessment before purchasing antiviral equipment and drugs, the department also failed to manage its supplies and have a replenishment plan in place, Roth said.
DHS has said it will comply with the recommendations made by the Office of the Inspector General.
Additionally, Deborah Burger, co-president of National Nurses United, criticized the response to Ebola from government officials and U.S. hospitals so far as “dangerously inconsistent and woefully inadequate.” A lack of mandates and voluntary compliance “has left nurses and other caregivers uncertain, severely unprepared and vulnerable to infection,” she said.
Burger urged Obama and Congress to mandate special hazmat suits and said she knows hospitals will not make any changes unless there’s legislation or executive orders to make them do it.
These inconsistencies in protocol are thought to be one possibility for how two nurses who cared for Ebola patient Eric Thomas Duncan at a Dallas hospital became infected.
Nina Pham, the first nurse to be confirmed with Ebola in the U.S., was declared free of the disease Friday at NIH in Bethesda, where she was being treated. She later met with Obama at the White House.
The second nurse, Amber Vinson, remains in treatment at Emory University in Atlanta.