White House press secretary Josh Earnest told TheBlaze Thursday that an air travel ban from West Africa – which some advocate as a precaution against the spread of Ebola – would create a “perverse” incentive for those wishing to avoid screening to take alternative routes.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks about the response to the ongoing Ebola crisis during the daily press briefing, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Still, he said the Obama administration’s position against a travel ban could change with circumstances.
“In a different circumstance, it would actually have a perverse effect of giving individuals an incentive to evade monitoring,” Earnest said. “The screening doesn’t just occur in this country when individuals from West Africa are seeking to enter the country. It also occurs on the ground in West Africa in the three countries where the Ebola outbreak currently exists.”
The three countries where Ebola is an epidemic are Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“If we are trying to protect the American public, we should not put in a travel ban,” Earnet said. He added, “If you put in place a travel ban from West Africa, those individuals could go to other countries and try to travel here and disguise their original destination."
Earnest responded to a question from TheBlaze about whether there would be a trigger or threshold of Ebola cases in the United States that would cause the Obama administration to reconsider its opposition to restricting flights from West Africa.
“We’re not considering a travel ban at this point. Does that mean that it could change? I suppose that it does,” Earnest added. “Based on the circumstances as we are aware of them now, that’s not something we are considering.”
Two American nurses who treated Liberian national Thomas Duncan at a Dallas hospital were diagnosed with Ebola. But Earnest stressed that Duncan is only individual known to have entered the United States with the disease.
“This Ebola outbreak occurred seven months ago. So far, there is one individual over the course of those seven months that has traveled to this country from West Africa and starting exhibiting symptoms of Ebola after they arrive,” Earnest said. “So, I think that it’s a relevant statistic as people evaluate the wisdom of a travel ban.”
Earlier this month, 25 members of Congress sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for a travel restrictions on flights from West Africa.
“The United States needs to institute travel restrictions, enhanced airport screening and possible quarantine of individuals who have traveled to, or from, the West African countries that have been most impacted by this tragic Ebola epidemic”, the letter stated. The letter continued, “Until such time as the WHO has determined the virus is fully contained and eliminated, we implore you to instruct the FAA to cancel all flights to and from all related countries, currently experiencing the Ebola epidemic.”
Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, pointed out that 27 African countries, Air France and British Airways have restricted flights from West Africa. With regard to carriers going underground, Pittenger said this is about reducing exposure and not having open skies, not a cure all.
“It’s not the perfect solution I’m advocating, but it will provide measurable help,” Pittenger told TheBlaze. “There is no way to control the whole package. This would at least stop direct flights to the U.S. There is no cure all. This is about not having open access to planes.”
Pittenger doesn’t believe added screening at five major airports is enough to protect Americans.
The administration ordered that New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, Newark’s Liberty and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson have enhanced screening because these locations take in 94 percent of West African travelers into the United States.
Earnest stressed that the screening is working at airports in Africa.
“We also know that there are dozens of individuals that were exhibiting symptoms who were denied boarding on those planes,” Earnest said. "The thing that’s important for people to understand is that when those individuals who were denied boarding were tested, they were not found to have Ebola. But, it indicates how important it is to have those kind of screening measures in place to protect the American public. That is the bottom line for the president.”