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Health Officials Face Ebola Questions On Capitol Hill


There are so many questions about the way this country's few Ebola cases have been handled and that's even after a Congressional hearing today. We'll go to Capitol Hill in a moment, but first some of the latest developments related to those current cases.


Students in two schools in Ohio and three in Texas were told to stay home today as buildings and buses were disinfected. The precautions come after news that a staff member and several students were on the same plane that carried Amber Vinson. She's the second Texas nurse to test positive for Ebola.

CORNISH: Both Dallas nurses have been transferred to other facilities. Vinson is being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Nina Pham will receive care at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in suburban Maryland.

BLOCK: As all of this was playing out, members of Congress put aggressive questions to CDC director Tom Frieden and the head of the Texas hospital system that treated the U.S.'s first Ebola patient.

NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: For months since West Africa's Ebola outbreak reached historic proportions, Tom Frieden has been sticking to a reassuring theory. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly insisted that most American hospitals were adequately prepared to handle the Ebola virus and that the disease wouldn't stand much of a chance in the U.S.

His message today...


TOM FRIEDEN: But there are no shortcuts in the control of Ebola and it is not easy to control it.

CHANG: And now with the infection of two nurses in Dallas who were caring for a Liberian man with Ebola, public health officials are scrambling to figure out if there was a breach in protocol, or if the protocols the CDC first recommended were just too flimsy.

Here's Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.


REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SCALISE: You said the protocols were breached. Were the protocols breached? With the first nurse that was infected? Yes or no?

FRIEDEN: Our review of their records suggest that in the first few days...

SCALISE: If you didn't know for fact, you shouldn't have said it. Do you withdraw that statement or do you still stand by the statement that protocols were breached by the first nurse?

FRIEDEN: There was a definite exposure that resulted...

SCALISE: Were protocols breached? Yes or no?

CHANG: Frieden says at least 50 health workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital may have been exposed. Apologies have begun, not from Frieden, but from Daniel Varga who oversees the hospital. It had mistakenly sent the first Ebola patient home when he showed up with symptoms. Varga testified by video feed.


DANIEL VARGA: We made mistakes. We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola and we are deeply sorry.

CHANG: But members weren't only focused on what happened inside the hospital - one of the infected nurses boarded a commercial flight just before testing positive. And Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania asked Frieden, how could this possibly have happened since she told the CDC before boarding the plane that she had a slight fever?

REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: So what specifically did she tell you her symptoms were, or what was happening?

FRIEDEN: I have not seen the transcript of the conversation. My understanding is that she reported no symptoms to us.

CHANG: While experts say the risks to the passengers on the plane are low, many members of Congress fear another misstep. Screening at five U.S. airports won't be enough, they say, people released at checkpoints might develop symptoms later. So a herd of lawmakers is now clamoring for a temporary ban on all flights from affected regions in West Africa, but Dem. Henry Waxman of California says that idea lacks common sense.


REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: Sealing people off in Africa is not going to keep them from traveling. They'll travel to Brussels, as one of the people did and then into the United States.

CHANG: And Frieden said when people circumvent airport screening, the U.S. will lose the ability to track them.


FRIEDEN: We won't be able to check them for fever when they leave. We won't be able to check them for fever when they arrive.

CHANG: And Frieden pointed out that restricting travel will also obstruct the flow of equipment and other help to West Africa. And if the disease spreads further at the source, he says it will threaten the U.S.'s health care system for a very long time.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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