Obama may appoint Ebola czar

 

President Obama on Thursday said it "may make sense" to appoint an Ebola czar to oversee the federal government's response to the deadly virus.

Obama's remarks represent a significant shift for the White House, which has rejected the czar idea repeatedly. 

"It may make sense for us to have one person in part just so that after this initial surge of activity we can have a more regular process to make sure we're crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's," Obama said after meeting with top health officials in the Oval Office.

"If I appoint somebody, I'll let you know," he added.

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The president was joined in the two-hour meeting by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, national security adviser Susan Rice, Homeland Security aide Lisa Monaco and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Tom Frieden.

Obama noted that each of those individuals had other responsibilities, including the oncoming flu season and the fight against jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

"It may be appropriate for me to appoint an additional person, not because the three of these folks have not been doing an outstanding job ... really working hard on this issue, but they also are responsible for a whole bunch of other stuff," he said.

Republicans, including Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day McConnell urges GOP senators to 'keep your powder dry' on Supreme Court vacancy McSally says current Senate should vote on Trump nominee MORE (R-Ariz.), have said the president needs to appoint a point person to help reassure Americans concerned about the infections.

“There has to be more reassurance given to them,” McCain told CNN. “I would say that we don't know exactly who's in charge. There has to be some kind of czar.”

However, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said she doesn't think appointing an additional person to oversee the Ebola crisis is a good idea.

"I think the last thing we need right now is another layer of bureaucracy," DeGette said. "I do think we have an Ebola czar, and that's the CDC."

Earlier Thursday, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCalls grow for Biden to expand election map in final sprint Bipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death Chamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection MORE (R-Texas) called for a designated leader to coordinate the federal response to Ebola.

"The President should immediately designate an experienced, proven leader to coordinate a national response involving local, state and federal agencies to contain Ebola in the United States, including considering temporary restrictions on travel from impacted West African nations," he said.

But until the president's comments, the White House had seemed reluctant, with press secretary Josh Earnest saying Thursday officials "continue to believe is that the clear lines of responsibility have been established, and they continue to exist; that it is the clear responsibility of the Department of Defense, for example, to leverage their logistical expertise in West Africa to improve the response to the outbreak in that region of the world."

The president was less enthusiastic about another idea that has been embraced by dozens of lawmakers on Capitol Hill: instituting a travel ban against the three West Africa countries where the Ebola outbreak is concentrated.

Obama said he did not "necessarily" have "a philosophical objection to a travel ban," but that public health experts have universally told him it was a bad idea.

"A travel ban is less effective than the measures we are currently implementing," he explained.

Obama said history indicated there was "a likelihood of increased avoidance" when outright bans were implemented, with potentially sick passengers more likely to break up their trip so they could hide where they had visited.

"We may end up getting less information about who has the disease ... and as a consequence we could get more cases rather than less," Obama said.

“Currently the judgment of all involved is that a flat-out travel ban is not the way to go," he added, saying that he could reevaluate if circumstances or evidence changes.

Obama, who has canceled two days of campaign activity to address the crisis in Washington, also offered reassurances to the American public. He emphasized that Ebola "remains a very difficult disease to catch" and that the risks "remain extremely low for ordinary folks.”

He pledged that the crisis was being taken "very seriously at the highest levels, starting with me" and that his team was focused specifically on the Dallas-area hospital where the two nurses were infected.

Obama conceded there “may have been problems in how protective gear was worn or removed" by those treating the Liberian man who became the first U.S. patient.

But, the president said, “the most important thing that I can do in keeping Americans safe is dealing with Ebola at the source,” saying it was necessary to continue recruiting international support to fighting the disease in West Africa.

“We’ve got more work to do," Obama said, adding the fight was “taking a little bit longer than it should.”  

—This post was updated at 9:33 p.m.