Lawmakers push to quarantine Ebola doctors after NYC case

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Lawmakers on Friday called for an immediate 21-day quarantine period for all doctors and service members who return to the United States after helping with the Ebola response in West Africa.

With news that doctor Craig Spencer brought an Ebola infection to New York City after treating patients in Guinea, lawmakers pressed federal health officials to consider mandatory quarantines for people who are on the front lines in the battle against the virus.

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"Is there any reason [not to implement] this proposal?" Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) asked a witness from the Pentagon. "Why couldn't you go a little more overboard with the protections?"

Spencer is now in medical isolation, while three of his contacts, including his girlfriend, are under quarantine in case they contracted the disease. The night before he reported first showing symptoms, Spencer had taken an Uber cab to a bowling alley.

Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzChaplain controversy shifts spotlight to rising GOP star Ingraham’s ratings spike a wake-up for advertisers Boehner to campaign for House GOP candidates MORE (R-Utah) challenged the idea that returning healthcare workers could reliably quarantine themselves, noting Spencer’s activities in New York.

"The self-quarantine didn't work. It didn't work in the case of Dr. Spencer, and he's one of the great people on this earth. … That's the concern," Chaffetz said. "I don't know why we wouldn't put that travel restriction in place."

"Are [returning] military going to be allowed to see their girlfriend, go bowling, take an Uber?" asked Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFarenthold says he won't repay K sexual harassment settlement Farenthold lands new job in Texas Eric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties MORE (R-Texas).

Rep. Elijiah Cummings (Md.), the Oversight committee's ranking Democrat, told reporters after the hearing that he would consider supporting a quarantine.

“I want us to do whatever is necessary to make sure that our people are safe,” Cummings said. “If there are areas where I think we can more effective and efficient, then we need to take a look at those.”

Spencer is receiving care at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Friday that the federal government is "thinking through" its protocols, including quarantine policies, in response to Spencer's case.

The White House, however, said that the administration continued to review and assess its procedures following the New York diagnosis, but generally defended current protocols that did not call for self-isolation.

Currently, no general quarantine is required for people returning from countries battling Ebola. 

Healthcare workers are advised to isolate themselves post arrival, and like other travelers coming from West Africa, their health is monitored for three weeks by U.S. public health officials.

Rabih Torbay, senior vice president at International Medical Corps, testified that imposing quarantines would strongly discourage volunteer healthcare workers from assisting in the relief effort.

As an example, he said, the IMC requires a six-week minimum commitment to treat Ebola patients. Adding a 21-day quarantine would stretch doctors' furloughs to nine weeks, a period of leave that few hospitals would allow.

"We cannot recruit staff from the U.S. or anywhere else in the world if there is not a chance they could come back to their families and their [jobs]" quickly, Torbay told lawmakers.

"Putting people in quarantine goes against our ability to recruit and retain [staff], and therefore, it will go against our ability to fight against the virus in West Africa."

Members of the military undergo a stricter re-entry procedure than healthcare workers.

Pentagon personnel who participate in the response will be quarantined for 10 days in West Africa prior to their departure for the United States.

They will then be required to undergo twice-daily health monitoring for the duration of the virus's 21-day incubation period. The monitoring will take place in person on military bases.

Pentagon officials emphasized that no service members would be providing direct medical care to Ebola patients, and only a few highly trained specialists would handle fluid samples that could contain the virus.

Major Gen. James M. Lariviere noted there is a "no-touch" policy in place between U.S. and Liberian troops that is being enforced "quite strictly" on both sides. Three feet of separation is also required, he said.

"Because [military] personnel won't provide direct medical care … our risk is much lower than those who do, to begin with," said Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin.

Lawmakers sought to highlight other areas that could pose challenges to the military.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) wondered how many planes are available to bring troops back to the United States in case they become infected with Ebola. Upon hearing that only four service members could be transported back per week, McHenry expressed "great concern."

The hearing exposed several areas of vulnerability in U.S. preparedness for pandemics.

John Roth, the Homeland Security inspector general, described the government's stockpile of emergency medical supplies as insufficient, arbitrary and disorganized. Many of the supplies are also expired or, in the case of antiviral drugs, ineffective from being kept at the wrong temperature, he said.

A representative from the National Nurses Union, meanwhile, said workers dealing with a pandemic would be unprepared and vulnerable due to the government's failure to impose mandatory training and preparedness standards on hospitals.

“Every [registered nurse] who works in a healthcare facility could be a Nina Pham or Amber Vinson,” she said, referring to the Dallas nurses who became ill with Ebola.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Nicole Lurie tangled with several Republicans over the quality of the government's response and the rhetoric from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shifted over the course of the Dallas outbreak.

"Do I think we've done a good job [training U.S. healthcare workers to fight Ebola]? … Yes, I do," she said. "Do I think we're being very aggressive now? … I think we are being very, very aggressive about that."

The mounting questions about the U.S. response came against the backdrop of promising news for two other U.S. Ebola patients.

Pham, the first Dallas nurse diagnosed with the virus, was declared Ebola-free at the National Institutes of Health on Friday morning.

"I feel fortunate and blessed to be standing here today," Pham said at a press conference.

"I am on my way back to recovery, even as I reflect on others who have not been so fortunate," she said.

Pham's discharge makes her the seventh American to recover from Ebola since the epidemic began late last year.

Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who infected two Dallas nurses, is the only person to die of the virus in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Emory University Hospital said the second Dallas nurse was "making good progress" and that tests no longer detect Ebola in her blood.

Sarah Ferris contributed.

— This story was last updated at 2:46 p.m.