The Obama administration on Wednesday announced that it has asked flight attendants, pilots and border officials to monitor people's health in an effort to stop others from entering the United States with the Ebola virus, even as some members of Congress are calling for a full travel ban from West African countries.
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest seemed to dismiss the idea that Ebola could spread throughout the U.S., and made no mention of a travel ban in his Wednesday briefing. Instead, he stressed that Ebola can only be transmitted through an exchange of bodily fluids from people showing symptoms of the disease, and said there are several steps being taken to watch for people exhibiting these symptoms.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that officials are having flight attendants, pilots and border officials watch closely to make sure no one else enters the U.S. with Ebola. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
"There are protocols in place where those individuals who are leaving West Africa and traveling to the West are screened," he said. "We've also provided guidance to pilots, flight attendants and others who… are sort of responsible for staffing our transportation infrastructure, we've given them guidance for monitoring the health and well-being of travelers, to ensure that if they notice individuals who are exhibiting symptoms that seem to be consistent with Ebola, that the proper authorities are notified."
He also said U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are watching for people with symptoms as they cross the border.
But by Earnests's own logic, flight attendants, border officials and others are unlikely to spot anyone carrying the virus if they are not exhibiting symptoms. That makes it possible that more infected people could enter the country in addition to Thomas Duncan in Dallas, an Ebola victim who has created a health emergency that has forced health officials to scramble to ensure the virus does not spread further.
While Duncan entered the country without showing symptoms, he quickly developed them, and health officials are now monitoring dozens of people he contacted to see if they develop symptoms as well. It has also been reported that Duncan was "throwing up all over the place" outside his apartment complex, which could lead to further infections and has led some parents to pull their kids out of school.
Duncan's case has also revealed flaws in the hospital system that could help the spread of the virus in the United States — the hospital he first visited released Duncan even though some knew he had been in West Africa. Health officials were also monitoring a second patient in Hawaii, who may also have the virus.
The idea that a travel ban would not keep the disease from spreading appears to be based partly on comments from Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden, who said this week there was "zero risk of transmission" on the flight.
But Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) on Wednesday wrote a letter to Frieden asking him to recommend a travel ban to the Obama administration, and said the government has the power to impose a travel ban for health-related reasons.
"Fortunately, there is a law already on the books with the very purpose of containing the spread of diseases into our country," Poe said. "The time to invoke this law to ensure Americans are not exposed to this deadly disease is now, not after the disease is spread even further within our borders."
The law Poe cited allows the Surgeon General to recommend a travel ban when there is a "serious danger of the introduction" of a communicable disease into the United States.
As of this week, however, a travel ban doesn't seem to be in the cards. A State Department official told the Washington Post that there are no plans to impose a travel ban.