Aid workers question U.S. government's slow response to Ebola crisis

Congressman: 'I was concerned that no one could tell me who was in charge'

A Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer on a worker at Muhammed International Airport. (Sunday Alamba/AP)

A humanitarian organization battling Ebola in Africa pleaded for help for more than a month before the well-publicized infections of two Americans finally prompted a response from the U.S. government, an administrator with Samaritan’s Purse told a congressional subcommittee on Thursday.

“In mid-June, I began speaking privately to U.S. officials that the disease was spiraling out of control and more needed to be done immediately,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of the North Carolina-based Christian missionary organization. “That the world would allow two relief agencies to shoulder this burden along with the overwhelmed Ministries of Health in these countries testifies to the lack of serious attention the epidemic was given.”

Once missionaries Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol contracted Ebola in Liberia, Isaacs called Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) on July 28. Isaacs relayed to Wolf, who has previously visited the relief organization in Africa, how bleak the situation had become.

Wolf said he immediately phoned the White House, State Department, Centers for Disease Control and Department of Health and Human Services “trying to understand just what, if anything, the U.S. was doing both to help contain the outbreak in Africa and prevent the spread of Ebola to the U.S.”

“I was concerned that no one could tell me who was in charge within the administration on this issue,” Wolf said in a written statement. “No one could explain what actions would be taken to ensure the U.S. was prepared to respond.”

Wolf’s concerns about a lack of response were similar to those in a July 28 letter from Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham to Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC. The two-page letter cites “existing deficiencies in CDC planning, procedures, and protocols for response to the Ebola virus.”

Specifically, Graham said Samaritan’s Purse was having difficulty finding guidance it needed to get its volunteers back to the U.S. safely. From his letter:

From all we have been able to learn, CDC does not have any existing procedures or protocols for management or reintegration of returning healthcare workers who have potentially been exposed to Ebola.

We also were distressed to learn that CDC has no available registry of medical facilities capable of treating an Ebola patient in the United States.

A CDC spokesperson couldn’t provide specifics, but said the health agency and Samaritan’s Purse had corresponded and that Graham's concerns have been addressed.

“I don’t know details, but I know that they’ve settled in a good place,” Barbara Reynolds told Yahoo News. “I believe they are getting what they need.”

Click image to read entire letter.

On the day of Graham’s letter, the public health institute issued a health alert notice to remind U.S. health care workers on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

Three days later, the CDC warned Americans against traveling to Ebola-hit countries. On Wednesday, the agency escalated its emergency plan to a “Level 1” response. The ‘all-hands’ call has only been used twice since its inception in 2003 — for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and H1N1 in 2009.

On Thursday afternoon, Reuters reported that the Obama administration is setting up a special Ebola working group to consider broad “principles of decision-making” for the potential use of experimental drugs to help those infected by the deadly disease in Africa.

Rep. Wolf recognized the progress, but said, “It’s clear the administration is still trying to catch up after being 'asleep at the switch' for so long.”

The highly contagious disease has killed nearly 1,000 people in Africa and sickened hundreds more since March.

“The death rates of this recent West African outbreak will easily and quickly surpass the combined total of all previous outbreaks,” Isaacs said at Thursday’s hearing. “The disease is uncontained and out of control in West Africa.”

At Thursday’s hearing on “Combating the Ebola Threat,” Isaacs said those confirmed diagnoses likely only represent 25 to 50 percent of the cases. He said the World Bank has committed $200 million to the fight, but “I fear money alone cannot solve this problem.”

To gain ground, Isaac said more people are needed to help "focus on the concept of containment.”

“The virus, regardless of where it came from, now resides on planet Earth and it has the capability to travel at the speed of an airplane,” Isaacs said. “Until there is a vaccine or a cure, we can only fight it by containing it, treating its victims, practicing proper hygiene, and educating.”

At the hearing, Frieden said CDC is working to open more treatment centers and expand proper Ebola testing in Africa. He made no promises that the virus won’t eventually surface in the United States.

“We are all connected and inevitably there will be travelers, American citizens and others who go from these three countries — or from Lagos if it doesn't get it under control — and are here with symptoms," Frieden said. “But we are confident that there will not be a large Ebola outbreak in the US.”

There is no treatment or vaccine for Ebola, but it can be contained if the sick are immediately quarantined and vigilant sanitation is used.

“If you leave behind even a single burning ember, it's like a forest fire,” Frieden said. “It flares back up.”

(With reporting from the Associated Press and Reuters.)

Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).