and Tony Pugh
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama called for health-care workers returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa to be treated as “the heroes that they are,” amid continuing confusion and public anxiety over state health measures that call for some to be confined to their homes.
Obama warned there may be future cases of Ebola in the United States and that the only way to bring the risk to zero is to contain the outbreak at its source, in West Africa.
“If we’re not dealing with this problem there, it will come here,” he said at the White House, joined by his Ebola response coordinator, Ron Klain, and sharing a stage with doctors and nurses who have been to West Africa. “What we need right now is these shock troops who are out there leading globally. We can’t discourage that. We’ve got to encourage it and applaud it.”
Without naming any states, Obama warned against overly restrictive monitoring measures, saying, “If we’re discouraging our health-care workers ... from traveling to these places in need, then we’re not doing our job in terms of looking after our own public health and safety.”
Obama’s remarks came as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Wednesday ordered that all U.S. troops who travel to Liberia to help build Ebola treatment centers be quarantined for 21 days afterward, even though the service members will not come into direct contact with Ebola patients. The measure exceeds the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Hagel noted that the troops are not volunteers and described the measure as a “safety valve.”
The CDC issued revamped guidelines Monday, based on risk, for monitoring people who might have been exposed. The guidelines don’t carry the force of law, however.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest rejected suggestions that the differing policies were prompting confusion.
Federal officials have said they fear rigid state policies could deter health-care workers from serving in West Africa and create false stigmas. CDC officials say the virus is not nearly as contagious as the flu or the cold and that only someone with active symptoms can transmit the disease. The CDC guidelines call for workers who have come into direct contact with the bodily fluids or the dead body of an Ebola patient to avoid public transportation and crowded places and to submit to daily monitoring for symptoms.
For those at reduced risk, the agency recommended daily monitoring by health officials and travel restrictions on a case-by-case basis.
Obama didn’t mention any states by name but implored Americans not to give in to fear or misinformation.
“We react clearly and firmly, even when others are losing their heads,” the president said.
He noted that of the seven Americans treated for Ebola, all have survived. One — Dr. Craig Spencer — remains hospitalized in New York.
Polls, however, suggest unease among many Americans, who overwhelmingly supported quarantine for travelers arriving from West Africa, according to a CBS News poll on Wednesday.
Eighty percent think U.S. citizens and legal residents returning from the region should be quarantined upon their arrival in the United States until it is certain they don’t have the virus. Just 17 percent of respondents said travelers should be allowed to enter the country as long as they do not show symptoms.
Some have called for a travel ban, which the administration opposes. Obama said the U.S. cannot “hermetically seal ourselves off. The nature of international travel and movement means that the only way to assure that we are safe is to make sure that we have dealt with the disease where, right now, it is most acute.”
On Wednesday, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said it “supports and implements scientifically grounded monitoring measures for all returned aid workers,” based on the recommendations of public health experts, the statement said.
How the Defense Department will implement its quarantine, which could apply to as many as 4,000 troops, was unanswered Wednesday, as Hagel gave officials 15 days to iron out details. Among the unanswered questions are: Where will the quarantines happen? And will troops making transit stops through Ebola-infected countries be subjected to quarantine?