Top government officials steering the nation’s response to the catastrophic spread of Ebola in western Africa admitted Friday that health officials made “missteps” in responding to a case of the deadly disease in Dallas.
But the officials, holding what was clearly meant to be a reassuring briefing at the White House, promised that there would be no “outbreak” in the United States.
The health care systems in afflicted African countries are "inadequate and incapable of actually handling the kind of identification, isolation, rapid treatment, [and] protection of the people who come into contact [with infected people] and contact tracing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told reporters.
“We have a case now, and it is entirely conceivable there may be another case. But the reason that we feel confident is that our structure, our ability to do those things would preclude an outbreak,” he added.
The officials laid out measures meant to keep infected travelers from boarding airplanes bound for the United States. Those screenings – like testing would-be passengers for fever and other symptoms – have kept “dozens and dozens” of people from leaving affected countries, said White House Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco.
Monaco also rejected growing calls, including from some in Congress, to impose a travel ban on people from the region.
“We believe those types of steps actually impede the response. They impede and slow down the ability of the United States and other international partners to actually get expertise and capabilities and equipment into the affected areas,” she said. “The most important and effective thing we can do is to control the epidemic at its source.”
The officials insisted that the known case in Dallas, where health care providers initially turned away a man with Ebola who then potentially exposed more people to the disease, was an exception.
“This outbreak began in March of this year,” Monaco underlined. “And since that time and since the screening measures that we’ve discussed from this podium began over the summer, there have been tens of thousands of individuals who have come to this country from the affected region. And we have now seen one case.”
Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), expressed “confidence” in the system of tests and alerts devised by the government.
“These processes work,” she said. But “we are going learn every time at every step.”
Still, Fauci admitted “there were things that did not go the way they should have in Dallas.”
“Certainly it was rocky,” Fauci said. “There were missteps there, there were good things that happened also” after the initial error.
The other officials at the briefing were Raj Shah, administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and General David M. Rodriguez, commander, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).
The briefing came as the Pentagon announced that 1,800 more troops would head to West Africa to help with the response effort, which could eventually require 4,000 Defense Department personnel.