Health officials at the center of nation’s Ebola crisis are moving into overdrive to tame widespread public fears about the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced three new protocols in three days as it looks to assert control over the deadly virus that infected two Americans this month.
“The bottom line here is that we have to keep up our guard against Ebola,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters Wednesday as he announced a three-week mandatory monitoring period for anyone traveling into the United States from West Africa.
The new protocols follow a week of brutal headlines for the CDC, which has been accused of falling down on the job after the first Ebola case was diagnosed in Dallas. The barrage of criticism prompted President Obama to cancel two days of campaign travel and appoint a special Ebola coordinator to direct the federal response.
Frieden said last week that the agency’s initial response in Dallas was not strong enough. He said the agency should have kept a closer eye on the nurses who treated that patient instead of letting them self-monitor for symptoms, which allowed them to travel publicly.
He also said the two nurses who became infected in Dallas may have been exposed to the virus because CDC’s protocols for hospital gear initially allowed for exposed skin.
But even as the agency is conceding mistakes, the public storm over the agency’s response appears to be ebbing.
With no new Ebola cases diagnosed in the U.S. in eight days and dozens of people deemed no longer at risk for contracting it, the Obama administration is looking to capitalize on the good news with a proactive approach.
Inside the nation’s hospitals, the CDC has established new guidelines for caring for Ebola patients. It now instructs nurses and doctors to wear protective gear that doesn’t expose skin, and tells them they should only put on or take off their gear while watched by trained specialists.
In addition, travelers to the U.S. from West Africa are now required to check their temperature twice daily in addition to self-monitoring for other symptoms. Those travelers are also required to enter through one of five major airports, where they are screened and questioned.
The rerouting, which affects hundreds of travelers each week, is a far cry from the travel ban backed by more than 70 members of Congress. But it still represents a significant shift for the administration, which before this week had not limited travel as much.
When asked Wednesday whether the Obama administration believed that the country had turned a corner in the Ebola crisis, White House press secretary Josh Earnest touted the new protocols.
“There has been a stepped up level of activity here at the federal level to deal with this issue,” Earnest told reporters, pointing to new measures by the CDC, Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.
Polls show the public trusts the U.S. response to Ebola. Just over 50 percent of people say they are confident in the government’s ability to beat the disease, though that figure has dropped 8 percentage points since the two other cases were reported in Dallas.
Still, senior Republican leaders say the new Ebola restrictions do not go far enough and continue to press for a full travel ban. The issue is likely to enter the spotlight Friday at a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden MORE (R-Va.) said it is widely accepted that the current screenings would not have prevented Ebola from entering the country last month.
“I’m glad that the Obama administration is showing more concern about the possibility of people infected with Ebola entering the United States and spreading this deadly disease," Goodlatte said in a statement Tuesday. "But the administration must do more to protect Americans."
Frieden and other public health experts have warned that Ebola will remain a threat as long as the disease is ravaging parts of West Africa.
“It may look like it's leaving the front pages, but that may not be permanent, because another couple of cases emerging in the country will bring it right back,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
“This is not going to stop being a threat to the United States until it's controlled at the roots,” he said.