President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday that his administration would respond in a “much more aggressive way” to cases of Ebola in the United States and warned that in an age of frequent travel the disease could spread globally if the world doesn’t respond to the “raging epidemic in West Africa.”
In his most urgent comments on the spread of the disease, Obama also sought to ease growing anxiety and fears in the U.S. in the aftermath of a second nurse being diagnosed with Ebola after treating a patient in a Dallas hospital. He said he had directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to step up its response to new cases.
“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 though what needs to be done,” he said.
Underscoring Obama’s stepped-up attention to the disease, the White House announced Obama was cancelling his travel Thursday to Rhode Island and New York to remain at the White House to monitor the government’s Ebola response.
It marked the second day in a row that Ebola altered Obama’s plans. Obama canceled a political campaign trip Wednesday to convene a session of top Cabinet officials involved in the Ebola response both in the U.S. and in the West African region where the disease has been spreading at alarming rates.
Participants in the meeting were a roster of Cabinet secretaries and top Obama advisers, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Even as he raised the potential for global contagion, Obama also stressed that the danger in the United States remained a long shot.
“Here’s what we know about Ebola. It’s not like the flu. It’s not airborne,” he said.
He made the point of noting that when he visited with health care workers who had attended to Ebola patients at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, he hugged and kissed them without fear of infection. “They followed the protocols, they knew what they were doing,” he said. “I felt perfectly safe doing so.”
Hours before Obama canceled his trip, officials confirmed that a second nurse at a Dallas had tested positive for the virus after treating an Ebola patient who later died. The disclosure raised new fears regarding the exposure by other health care workers. Officials also revealed that the nurse was on a commercial flight the evening before being diagnosed.
House Speaker John Boehner said Obama should consider a temporary ban on travel to the United States from the West African countries afflicted by the virus and that the president should weigh other measures “as doubts about the security of our air travel systems grow.”
Administration officials have resisted a travel ban, saying that adequate screening measures are already in place — only once has an Ebola victim flown into the U.S. — and that a ban could hinder assistance to the afflicted.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing on the outbreak Thursday.
The Texas developments added a new domestic element to what has developed into an Ebola crisis in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Obama has been pressing the international community to step up its assistance in combating the disease.
On Wednesday, Obama spoke by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The White House said Obama stressed that the world must provide the finances and personnel needed “to bend the curve of the epidemic” and said it amounts to a “human tragedy as well as a threat to international security.”
He made a similar case to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, the White House said.
Obama spoke after the White House conceded shortcomings in the response to the Liberian Ebola patient’s care.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden had declared that even one health care worker being exposed was unacceptable.
“So that is an indication that there were shortcomings,” Earnest said.
Asked how the nurse was able to fly to and from Ohio over the weekend, Earnest said, “It’s not clear what protocols were in place and how those protocols were implemented.”