President Obama said the federal government would adopt a “much more aggressive” response to the Ebola crisis, after reports that a second healthcare worker who contracted the virus flew across the country, despite close contact with a patient.
Federal officials said the worker should not have been traveling given the likelihood she was in danger of contracting the virus, and the fact that she did has raised serious questions about the ability of local officials in Dallas to handle the crisis.
He said that the administration was “taking this very seriously at the highest levels of government” and announced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be deploying “SWAT teams” the next time someone was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.
“What I’ve directed the CDC to do is that as soon as somebody is diagnosed with Ebola, we want a Rapid Response Team — a SWAT team, essentially — from the CDC to be on the ground as quickly as possible, hopefully within 24 hours, so that they are taking the local hospital step by step through exactly what needs to be done and making sure that all the protocols are properly observed, that the use of protective equipment is done effectively, the disposal of that protective equipment is done properly,” Obama said.
The president spoke to reporters following a hastily arranged meeting with Cabinet officials and agency heads responsible for the government's efforts to combat Ebola. The meeting was called after Obama canceled plans to campaign on Wednesday evening, signaling the seriousness of the situation.
Earlier on Wednesday, CDC Director Tom Frieden said the nurse who flew from Cleveland to Dallas “should not have been allowed to travel” and vowed to prevent other exposed healthcare workers from doing so.
The events have drawn new criticism of the administration, with two Republican members of Congress calling on Frieden to resign.
The president said his team was reviewing what was known about how the virus spread in Dallas. Nurses have complained they were not properly trained or equipped for their responsibilities.
He said the government would make sure “the lessons learned” in Dallas “are then transmitted to hospitals and clinics all across the country.”
Obama said the administration was paying special attention to “nonspecialized hospitals and clinics” that “don't have that much experience dealing with these issues.”
“We're going to have to push out this information as aggressively as possible, and that's the instructions that I've provided to my team,” Obama said.
He also said that the White House was “monitoring carefully” the rest of the healthcare workers who had come into contact with Duncan.
“We understand that many of them are scared, and we are going to make sure that we're on the ground 24-7 to provide them the kind of support, information and assurances that they need to get through this particular challenge,” he said.
Obama, who did not address reports that the second infected nurse had traveled aboard a commercial airliner shortly before being diagnosed, sought to project a calming tone.
“I want to use myself as an example just so people have a sense of the science here,” Obama said. “I shook hands with, hugged, and kissed not the doctors but a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work they did in treating one of the patients. They followed the protocols, they knew what they were doing, I felt perfectly safe doing so. So this is not a situation where like the flu, the risk of a rapid spread of the disease is imminent.”
Obama added that “the dangers of a serious outbreak are extraordinarily low.”
The president renewed his call on other countries to pour more resources into West Africa, where nearly 4,500 have succumbed to the disease. Obama said that containing the disease at its root was essential in “an age of frequent travel.”
Obama also offered his “thoughts and prayers” to the two nurses who had contracted the disease.