A bear hug is worth a thousand words? President Barack Obama embraced Ebola survivor Nina Pham in the Oval Office on Friday, shortly after the 26-year-old Dallas nurse was discharged from the National Institutes of Health.
The White House photo op came as the Obama administration struggled to reassure jittery Americans that they should trust medical and scientific authorities and that the deadly disease does not threaten them.
In a show of faith in the nation’s elite doctors and scientists, the White House did not subject Pham to any additional screening before her face-to-face meeting with the president.
“Ms. Pham was tested five different times to confirm that she no longer had the virus,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “So all the necessary testing that allowed her to safely return home with a clean bill of health is the same guidance that she has gotten in terms of meeting the president.”
Earnest also praised New Yorkers who went about their routines after a Manhattan doctor who had treated Ebola patients in Guinea came down with the disease. Craig Spencer had been closely monitoring his health and reached out to authorities when his temperature spiked. Officials were retracing his movements in the days before he sought treatment at Bellevue Hospital Center, including a walk on the High Line elevated park and a subway ride to a Brooklyn bowling alley.
“We understand from reports that subway traffic today was typical for a Friday,” the spokesman said. “I think that’s an indication that the people of New York are feeling confident, as they should, about their safety as they go about their daily business.
“The president would have no qualms about riding the subway in New York or taking a stroll on the High Line, which is, I know, something he would love to do. Or even, you know, bowling a few frames at this bowling alley in Brooklyn,” Earnest said.
For weeks, the president and his top aides have publicly recited a reassuring credo about the disease, which could threaten the world from the outbreak’s epicenter in West Africa.
In briefings and speeches and on the White House website, Obama and his aides have underlined that Ebola cannot be transmitted through the air or through food in the United States. Only people showing symptoms — like high fever, vomiting, diarrhea — are contagious. And the virus is passed only through an afflicted person’s urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk or semen.
But relentless media attention to the handful of cases in the United States, plus the horrifying way the disease ravages patients, have left many Americans worried that the government is not doing enough to keep them safe.
Obama’s meeting with Pham “should be a pretty apt reminder that we do have the best medical infrastructure in the world, and certainly a medical infrastructure that’s in place to protect the American public. And the track record of treating Ebola patients in this country is very strong, particularly for those who are quickly diagnosed and admitted through the system,” said Earnest.
And “this is a testament today to a young woman who, over the course of doing her job in treating for an Ebola patient, got sick,” the spokesman underlined. “We’re certainly celebrating alongside her.”
The White House learned early on Friday that Pham would be released and reached out to NIH staff “to let her know that the president was interested in meeting her if she felt up to it,” Earnest said.
Asked whether there was any concern about putting the president so close to someone only recently recovered from Ebola, Earnest shrugged: “Yes, he is the president and he was not at all concerned about any risk that would be associated with him showing his gratitude to her by hugging her.”
It’s not the first time Obama has tried to spread a reassuring message through a hug. After a meeting with top aides running the effort to contain Ebola, the president pointed to a recent visit to the specialized treatment center at Emory University in Georgia.
“I want to use myself as an example just so that people have a sense of the science here,” he said. “I shook hands with, hugged, and kissed, not the doctors, but a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work that they did in treating one of the patients.
“They followed the protocols. They knew what they were doing,” he said. “And I felt perfectly safe doing so.”