Like all Americans, I welcome the news that Dallas is reportedly Ebola-free weeks after a Liberian man infected with the virus came to Texas. The fact that the disease did not spread further is a testament to good luck and hard work by brave health care workers. But the fact that it spread at all is a stain on this Administration’s record and should concern every American. With Ebola still out of control in West Africa, this remains an urgent international health threat. Congress and the Administration must get serious before we have another outbreak in the U.S.
The Ebola case in Texas revealed deep flaws in our federal government’s preparedness for a public health crisis and further undermined confidence in the Obama Administration and Congress. Public health experts have worried about Ebola for decades because the virus has a very high fatality rate, can spread quickly if not properly managed, and has no known cure or vaccine. Yet when the largest Ebola outbreak in history started in West Africa this summer, the Obama Administration did nothing to prepare for the possibility of the virus coming to the U.S. As is typical under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. “led from behind,” hoping that slow-moving international bureaucracies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and corrupt local governments in West Africa would lead an effective response. Predictably, the international response failed and thousands have died.
The Administration’s failed response continued when the virus reached the U.S. last month. Local hospitals were not properly prepared to identify people sick with Ebola – the Liberian patient in Dallas was actually released from the hospital after he first reported Ebola symptoms. Once administered, hospitals’ existing protocols were inconsistent and insufficient, which may explain how the original Dallas patient passed the virus to two American nurses who treated him. At every turn, Ebola was one step ahead of the Obama Administration. We need to stop being reactive, and start being pro-active.
After months of underestimating the threat Ebola poses to Americans, President Obama is finally waking up to the threat. However, his early steps are not reassuring. Apparently lacking confidence in the existing bureaucracy, last week President Obama appointed an “Ebola czar” to manage the crisis. He should have appointed a public health expert who would have the expertise and credibility to stop Ebola’s spread. Instead, he appointed a political operative best known for counting votes. This is not reassuring.
The Obama Administration should take several steps to reduce the chances of more Ebola carriers coming to the US. The State Department should impose a temporary travel ban for civilians traveling in and out of countries that have high levels of infection, with an exception for health care and other aid workers who are bravely volunteering in West Africa. We should issue a ban on new visas for nationals of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and put a hold on the as many as 13,000 U.S. visas already issued in those countries that have not been used for travel. The federal government must also continue to increase health screenings at our international airports and encourage our European partners to do the same, since travelers from affected countries transit through major European airports. We should also implement standard protocols at hospitals across the U.S. to quickly identify, isolate, and treat potential Ebola patients.
Congress has an important role to play, too. Since the Administration has so far rejected calls to restrict travel to West Africa, Congress should immediately return to Washington to pass a travel ban through legislation. For example, legislation being introduced by my friend Senator Marco Rubio would go a long way towards keeping Ebola out of the U.S. Congress also has important oversight and funding functions to play. Congress should increase funding and create a significant reward to incentivize U.S. companies developing potential Ebola vaccines, including a company in Ames, Iowa. Congress should also hold more oversight hearings; last week’s House Committee hearing was overdue and insufficient. Every member of Congress should tell President Obama to replace his political Ebola czar with a public health expert.
It’s time for the Administration and Congress to get serious and do everything possible to make sure the Ebola virus does not spread further into the United States.