As the federal government beefs up its fight against Ebola—both in West Africa and here in the United States—lawmakers and the public still remain skeptical about the country’s ability to take on the deadly virus.
Just last week, President Obama appointed the country’s first ever Ebola czar, Ron Klain, to lead the United States’ response. Since then a spate of federal agencies have ramped up their efforts.
The Department of Homeland Security, for instance, imposed travel restrictions on West African countries. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for hospitals. And the Defense Department has created a military SWAT team response unit of medical workers that can be deployed to any hospital at a moment’s notice to deal with a potential outbreak.
Despite these efforts, lawmakers have been increasingly critical of the administration, as well as the U.S. healthcare system’s preparedness to deal with an outbreak here at home.
During a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Friday, Committee members grilled health officials on their efforts—a day after the fourth Ebola case was detected in the United States.
“This is particularly distressing,” Chairman Darrel Issa (R-CA) said of the new case—a New York City doctor who had contracted the deadly virus while treating Ebola victims in Guinea on behalf of Doctors Without Borders.
Issa criticized hospitals in the United States for not being readily prepared—citing the instance at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital where two nurses contracted the virus while treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in the U.S. who died two weeks ago.
“I think we all know that the system is not yet refined to where we can say it is working properly,” Issa said. He added that ““Any further fumbles, bumbles or missteps … can no longer be tolerated.”
One of the witnesses, Deborah Burger, the co-president of National Nurses United, echoed Issa’s concern—adding that the Dallas hospital’s handling of Duncan was “dangerously inadequate.” In her prepared testimony, she cited a survey of nurses that found 85 percent said they are not adequately trained to treat an Ebola patient, adding that the numerous new guidelines issued by the CDC have caused confusion among health care workers.
“Shifting guidelines from agencies and reliance on voluntary compliance has left healthcare workers [vulnerable],” Burger said. “Every registered nurse who works in a healthcare facility could be a Nina Pham or Amber Vinson,” she said of the Dallas nurses.
Meanwhile, about an hour into the hearing, the National Institutes of Health announced that Nina Pham, the first nurse who tested positive for the virus-- has been successfully treated and dubbed Ebola free. This comes just two days after an American freelance photojournalist who contracted the virus in Liberia was also successfully treated at a U.S. hospital.
And though lawmakers have focused mostly on the country’s ability to respond to an Ebola epidemic in the United States, health officials continue to stress that the only way to completely prevent the possibility of an outbreak at home is to stop the virus at the source—in West Africa.
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