Obama talks 'Ebola czar,' travel ban

President Obama acknowledged Thursday night that he may appoint one person to focus solely on Ebola. But he was skeptical about imposing a ban on travel to the US from the most affected countries.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama points toward Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as he speaks to the media about the government’s Ebola response, in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday.

[Update: White House officials on Friday said that Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, would be the point person on the Ebola outbreak.]

President Obama said Thursday evening that he might appoint an “Ebola czar” to oversee the US government’s response to the virus.

The statement, made to reporters after meeting with top aides in the Oval Office, came amid growing pressure to do more to combat the threat to public health, even as he sought to reassure Americans that the government is on top of the situation.

“It may make sense for us to have one person” focused solely on Ebola, Mr. Obama said, “in part, just so that after this initial surge of activity, we can have a more regular process just to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward.”

Obama defended the efforts of his advisers on Ebola, saying they’ve been doing “an outstanding job in dealing with what is a very complicated and fluid situation.”

Advisers in the two-hour meeting included Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Thomas Frieden, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and top counterterrorism aide Lisa Monaco.

He noted that they have other important matters in their portfolios, including flu season and the Islamic State.

Obama also addressed the question of whether the US should institute a temporary ban on travel into the US from the West African countries most affected by Ebola – Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. The president said he didn’t have a “philosophical objection” to a travel ban, but cited experts in infectious disease who say that a travel ban could be counterproductive.

“If we institute a travel ban instead of the protocols that we’ve put in place now, history shows that there is a likelihood of increased avoidance,” Obama said. “People do not readily disclose their information.”

The US is putting in place procedures to screen passengers arriving from West Africa for signs of the disease. If a travel ban were put in place, people coming from the affected countries might engage in “broken travel” – going to another country before coming to the US, to hide where they have been – experts say.

“As a result, we may end up getting less information about who has the disease,” Obama said. “They’re less likely to get treated properly, screened properly, quarantined properly. And as a consequence, we could end up having more cases rather than less.”

The Obama administration has faced growing pressure to institute a travel ban, mostly from Republicans. At a congressional hearing Thursday, lawmakers pummeled Dr. Frieden, the CDC director, over the bungled handling of Ebola in the US.

The only person to die from the disease in this country, Liberian national Thomas Duncan, had been initially discharged from an emergency room in Dallas, before returning two days later in an ambulance. At least 50 health-care workers from the hospital that treated Mr. Duncan, Texas Health Presbyterian, have been potentially exposed to the disease, Frieden told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Two of the nurses who helped treat Duncan have been diagnosed with the disease and have been transferred to hospitals better equipped to handle their cases.

In addition, one of the nurses, Amber Joy Vinson, flew on a commercial airline right before her diagnosis, putting her in close proximity to other people. The Centers for Disease Control has been tracking down passengers from the two flights she took, between Dallas and Cleveland.

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