Congress worries Ebola could hit US, become more contagious

Lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the spread of Ebola and worry that it could jump to the United States and become more contagious.

President Obama on Tuesday unveiled new plans to surge U.S. support to West Africa that includes sending thousands of U.S. military personnel to the region and establishing a command-and-control center, and new hospitals to aid in the fight.

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But lawmakers worry the president’s efforts might not be enough to contain the outbreak. Already, an estimated 2,400 have died from the disease, and the United Nations estimates $1 billion could be necessary to limit the epidemic.

“We’re late to this challenge,” warned Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHannity, Kimmel, Farrow among Time's '100 Most Influential' The Hill's Morning Report: 200 Days to the Election Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination MORE (Ill.).

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk With Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election MORE (R-Ohio) echoed those comments.

“I think this Ebola outbreak in Africa is a serious problem, and I’m a bit surprised the administration hasn’t acted more quickly to address what is a serious threat, not only to Africans, but to others around the world,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk With Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election MORE said.

Obama’s speech at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention on the administration’s latest efforts to control the epidemic is partly a response to worries the situation in West Africa is getting worse.

“If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us,” Obama said. “So, this is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security, it’s a potential threat to global security.”

Durbin said he’s specifically concerned that people could try to hide their symptoms to travel to the United States for treatment.

“I am worried because many people, who — I’m told — have the symptoms are afraid to say anything. Their local governments will quarantine them and not treat them, so they’ll just die. Some of them, in desperation, get on airplanes to get out of the country to save their lives,” he said.

Other senators say there is a chance that as the virus spreads, it could mutate in a way that would make the disease more communicable or deadly. 

“People are now saying, what if it mutates?” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSunday Shows Preview: Emmanuel Macron talks ahead of state dinner CIA declassifies memo on nominee's handling of interrogation tapes Senate panel punts Mueller protection bill to next week MORE (D-Calif.).

The disease is spread through direct contact, according to the CDC.

A federal health official sought to tamp down fears that the virus could become airborne, telling lawmakers the possibility is very unlikely. 

But the official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said it was possible that a “state-type” actor could turn Ebola into a weapon of mass destruction. 

“Theoretically, you can manipulate almost any virus to change it in any way you want,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a joint Senate hearing. 

Lawmakers appear to be reflecting unease from their constituents.

A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday found that 27 percent of Americans say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that they or a member of their family will contract the deadly virus.

Nearly a third of women and a third of nonwhite voters believe there’s a chance someone in their families could contract Ebola, which kills approximately half of those who come into contact with it.

The president on Tuesday said chances of a U.S. outbreak are “extremely low.”

“We’ve been taking the necessary precautions, including working with countries in West Africa to increase screening at airports so that someone with the virus doesn’t get on a plane for the United States,” Obama said.

The president also said that, if a person carrying the disease were to make his or her way to U.S. shores, the government has worked with hospitals across the country to ensure cases are quickly identified and appropriately treated.

“Should any cases appear in the United States, we have world-class facilities and professionals ready to respond, and we have effective surveillance mechanisms in place,” Obama said.

Health experts agree that the risk of outbreak in the U.S. is minimal.

“Controlling Ebola is not a very sophisticated task,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Ebola outbreaks are stopped in their tracks when basic public health measures are in place ... and the United States would not be a hospitable environment for something that spreads exclusively through blood and body fluids.”

The U.S. has been able to handle cases of other deadly diseases like Middle East respiratory syndrome and Marburg virus without retransmission, Adalja said, thanks to a world-class medical infrastructure.

“There was no secondary spread, and those occurred without people being even aware there was a risk,” Adalja said. “Americans should be assured we do infectious control pretty well in the United States.”

Still, lawmakers and the White House warn the disease could have a dramatic impact in West Africa if it goes unchecked.

Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks MORE (R-Okla.), one of the few doctors serving in Congress, predicted, “you’re going to see hundreds of thousands of people die from this outbreak” because the African nations where the epidemic is most intense lack the resources to treat those afflicted.

Obama echoed that dire prediction in his remarks, predicting the disease could “overwhelm” African nations.

“It’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic,” Obama said. “That has profound effects on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease.”

Democrats discussed the fast-spreading crisis at a caucus meeting Tuesday.

“It’s a very, very difficult situation,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidGOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination The Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism MORE (D-Nev.). “It is a real crisis. Right now we have thousands of people who have been affected. Unless we and the rest of the world community join in doing something, it could be a real, real bad situation for Africa.”

A subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the outbreak Tuesday. Some members of that panel say U.S. doctors need to spend more time on the ground in West Africa.

“This is an outbreak that needs our expertise to be on the ground for more than three or four days,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Cybersecurity: Senators want info on 'stingray' surveillance in DC | Bills to secure energy infrastructure advance | GOP lawmaker offers cyber deterrence bill Overnight Health Care: GOP pushes stiff work requirements for food stamps | Johnny Isakson opens up about family's tragic loss to opioids | Republicans refuse to back vulnerable Dem's opioids bill | Dems offer new public option plan Dems give muted praise to Pompeo-Kim meeting MORE (D-Conn.).

The U.S. will also chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the topic, and the White House will host a summit on strengthening global health security later this month.

— Elise Viebeck contributed.