In Call with Mayors, Obama Urges Measured Response to Ebola

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The tragic death of Thomas Duncan in a Dallas hospital reminds us of the severity of the disease, said President Obama, and that it must be taken seriously.

In a wide ranging conference call with city leaders from across the nation, President Barack Obama on Wednesday spoke about the need for an appropriate and measured response to the Ebola virus and the crisis that is now concerning many in the U.S.

The tragic death of Liberian Thomas Duncan in a Dallas hospital reminds us of the severity of the disease and how we must take it seriously, Obama noted. But we need to respond based on facts and the facts are that doctors in the U.S. know how to deal with infectious diseases, in general, and the Ebola virus, in particular, he added.

Obama reiterated over and over an outbreak in the United States will be prevented, and then announced additional security and screening measures will be taken at five U.S. airports where about 90 percent of all West Africans enter the United States.

President Obama was joined on the call by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden M.D. Burwell opened her remarks by noting that the U.S. is prepared to deal with the Ebola virus and any outbreak that might occur; that the CDC has been in constant contact through publications and webinars with state and local health officials since the outbreak began nearly a year ago, and is also consulting with airlines, airports, hospitals, private physicians and other health care providers and their representatives.

Dr. Frieden echoed Burwel, saying--as he has said repeatedly--that the U.S. government is confident the virus can be contained in this country, even if other cases are identified; that the CDC is providing information to health care workers on methods for treating Ebola virus patients – something that is very complex -- and how health care workers should protect themselves from possible exposure; and has set up a hotline number (800 CDC INFO) for health care workers and others to obtain information on the Ebola virus, its containment, and treatment.

Homeland Security Secretary Johnson addressed the increasing concern about travelers from West Africa. Echoing President Obama’s statement that this is a national security issue, Johnson spoke about how DHS will be increasing inspections of travelers arriving from West Africa. In addition to screenings at departure points in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, customs and immigration agents in the United States will be doing visual inspections for signs of illness, medically trained Coast Guard personnel will be taking temperatures of persons arriving from these countries (with thermometers that operate without direct contact), and when necessary referrals to CDC personnel based at the airports will be made.

The stepped up screenings will take place at five airports – JFK, Newark, Dulles, O’Hare, and Atlanta Hartsfield – and when appropriate, at other entry points, including ports.

Among the mayors who joined the conversation were Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Each praised the federal government for the work it was doing to help their local health departments prepare for, and in the case of Dallas, deal with the disease, and talked about what they have been learning either as they responded to the disease or prepared to respond.

Mayor Rawlings noted that the real difficulties occur on the ground where so many different organizations and operations have to be merged into a single effort to respond to the disease and wondered if there is a way to standardize this. Mayor Nutter requested assistance from the federal government in developing strategies to best communicate with their federal partners. Mayor Landrieu urged every mayor to perform a table top review so that the response methodology and system to the Ebola virus can be tested and strengths and weaknesses can be identified.

In response to their questions and statement, Dr. Frieden and Secretary Burwell underscored the following facts:

  • Ebola cannot be caught from someone who is asymptomatic;
  • Ebola can only be caught from someone who is actually showing symptoms of the disease and then only through direct contact with the sick person or their bodily fluids; and
  • Ebola is not transmitted through the air like Influenza and other more common viruses.

As to communication and response, they said it is imperative that:

  • Mayors and other local officials should stay in touch with their local health departments to discuss any emerging or present threats;
  • Communicate clearly with the public;
  • Underscore that while Ebola is a terrible and frightening disease, keep to the facts; and
  • Every city, county and state should have an identified incident manager who is responsible for bringing all of the actors together to ensure a seamless response.

Ultimately, Sec. Burwell reminded everyone on the call to contact their local and state public health officials as well as the CDC if they have any concerns or questions. Note: If you have any specific questions that can’t be answered by the CDC website or by your local or state health department, please feel free to email me at bomberg@nlc.org and I will pass your question on to officials at the White House or Health and Human Services Department for an answer.

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Neil Bomberg
Program Director for Human Development, NLC