WASHINGTON — A top public health official told a House panel Thursday that the Obama administration has not ruled out imposing restrictions on travel to and from West Africa to help protect Americans from Ebola.
"We will consider any options to better protect Americans," Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said when asked by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., whether it is the policy of the Obama administration that there would be no travel restrictions.
Frieden did not say exactly what kind of travel restrictions he might be willing to support, but he made it clear the administration has concerns about an outright ban on commercial flights to and from West Africa.
He said he worries that if people are barred from flying here from West Africa, they may end up finding other ways to enter the U.S. without proper screening to detect the virus.
"Right now, we know who is coming in," he said, in his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Five U.S. airports that handle 94% of travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are implementing procedures to screen passengers from those countries by taking their temperatures, asking them a series of questions and looking for signs of Ebola. Anyone who exhibits symptoms will undergo further evaluation by the CDC.
Murphy and other Republicans on the oversight panel urged President Obama to immediately ban all commercial, non-essential travel between the United States and West Africa. That would still allow government aid workers and troops to go.
"Screening and self-reporting at airports have been a demonstrated failure," Murphy said.
Democrats said Congress must increase funding to U.S. health agencies, which have had budget cuts in recent years.
"This is a wakeup call for America that we cannot allow NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding to stagnate any longer," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.
Frieden tried to tamp down fears about an Ebola outbreak in the USA.
"There will not be a large outbreak here (in the USA) barring a mutation (of the virus)," he said.
Frieden, in written testimony submitted for the hearing, also said, "We remain confident that Ebola is not a significant public health threat to the United States . . .We know Ebola can be stopped with rapid diagnosis, appropriate triage and meticulous infection-control practices in American hospitals."
But he also said he feared a larger outbreak of the disease in Africa, which could pose long-term problems for the U.S. health system.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said the best way to stop Ebola in the USA is to stop it in Africa. "There is no such thing as fortress America when it comes to disease," she said.
The hearing came just one day after a second nurse from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas was diagnosed with Ebola. The two nurses, both in their 20s, contracted the virus after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient to die in the USA.
Duncan, who died Oct. 8, had traveled to Dallas from Liberia. More than 4,000 people have died in the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The Obama administration should at least consider immediately suspending U.S. travel visas issued to people from those three nations, said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
"Have you looked at that?" Scalise asked Frieden.
Frieden replied that the CDC "would certainly consider anything that would reduce risk to Americans."
John Wagner, acting assistant commissioner in the Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said CBP officials have screened 155 travelers from West Africa at JFK airport in New York since new precautions took effect there last weekend.
He said 13 people were identified as needing additional screening and eight of those were sent to the CDC for more examination. He said all of the travelers were examined and released.
Frieden also said 74 people were prevented from boarding flights overseas to come to the United States because they had fevers or other symptoms of disease.