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Hearings Examine Administration Response to Ebola

Anticipating tough questioning of Administration officials at congressional hearings on Ebola, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said that her key agency officials could have had “much better oversight” of the hospital in Dallas that treated the first U.S.-diagnosed Ebola patient who later died. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) also opined that the $5 billion in funding cuts to the NIH budget over ten years affected the development of Ebola vaccines. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) pushed back on this statement while pointing out several areas of NIH spending that he said were wasteful. The House Homeland Security Committee held a field hearing in Dallas to probe how federal, state and local agencies have coordinated their efforts in response to the outbreak and the House Energy and Commerce Committee staged a hearing that featured testimony on the Administration’s effort on Ebola from, among others, key officials making decisions for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. CDC Director Thomas Frieden sought to help calm the fears in the U.S. about the outbreak saying that “There is zero doubt in my mind, unless there’s a mutation, there will not be a large-scale outbreak in the U.S.” However, he cautioned that if Ebola spreads more widely in Africa, then it would present a threat to the American health care system “for a long time to come.” After Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) emphatically stated that an immediate travel ban to the U.S. from the affected West African nations should be instituted by the President, both Dr. Frieden and NIAID head Dr. Anthony Fauci defended the Administration’s decision not to do so. They argued that such a ban would hinder the current efforts to take the temperatures of travelers upon arrival in the U.S. and make them fill out a travel and medical history which could then be used to isolate or monitor persons who may potentially be infected with the virus. Dr. Frieden also testified that the CDC has designated more than 1,000 CDC employees to strengthen the global response to Ebola and that an additional $45 million is needed for lab networks to help quickly diagnose Ebola in suspected patients. Dr. Daniel Varga also testified remotely from the Dallas hospital in which the first case, Thomas Eric Duncan, was diagnosed. He apologized to the committee for the initial misdiagnosis of Mr. Duncan and the subsequent infection of two treating nurses (one sent to Emory University Hospital and another to the NIH), stating that the hospital is still investigating how the nurses were infected. Earlier last week, Dr. Frieden announced several rapid response measures that the CDC will take when an Ebola case is confirmed. He said “We will put a team on the ground within hours with some of the world’s leading experts in how to take care of and protect health care workers from Ebola infection….” He said that team members will have expertise in infection control, laboratory science, personal protective equipment and Ebola unit management and include experts who can help with other aspects, like experimental therapies. Additional efforts by CDC will include webinars, conference calls and outreach to support the training of health care workers nationwide. The CDC is also monitoring the health of the 76 individuals who came into contact with Mr. Duncan after he was hospitalized. In other news, President Obama named Ron Klain as the White House “Ebola Response Coordinator”, but his lack of credentials in the health care arena was quickly criticized by members of Congress. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) previously called for a high level Ebola “czar” who could help coordinate the efforts of the various federal agencies involved in responding to the crisis.

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