POLITICS

Now That The Election Is Over, Congress Seems To Have Calmed Down About Ebola

WASHINGTON -- The near-hysterical mood of congressional hearings on Ebola before the elections was replaced Wednesday by measured, reassuring debate in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

The committee held a hearing to discuss the White House's request for $6.2 billion to combat the epidemic. The Obama administration is asking for the money to ramp up efforts to control Ebola in Africa, prepare hospitals in the United States and develop treatments for the deadly virus.

Before the midterm elections, lawmakers in the House had hectored the nation's top medical experts in congressional hearings, often cutting them off and suggesting that they were ignorant about Ebola, that they were botching the response and that they were putting the nation at risk.

But at Wednesday's hearing, legislators allowed many of the same experts to answer questions fully and explain the complicated issues surrounding the response to the deadly, frightening disease.

And the senators were rewarded with perhaps the most reassuring of news: There is almost certainly no Ebola in America right now.

"We can now comfortably say that the United States of America is Ebola-free," said Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

The senators did question the experts about certain steps the Obama administration had taken. But unlike their colleagues before the election, on Wednesday the lawmakers waited for the answers.

Several senators noted that while the administration has opposed mandatory quarantines of medical workers and others coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the West African nations affected by the virus, the Department of Defense has slapped quarantines on military personnel returning from those countries.

The assembled experts explained that the military did that essentially to make service members more comfortable, not because it was medically necessary.

"It's not because we know something more than somebody else," said Gen. James M. Lariviere. "This was not a medically-based decision."

"This was not based on the science. This was based on the management of the force and the forces' desires," added Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of health and human services.

But with medical workers, the experts noted, there's a different issue. Quarantining them could discourage needed volunteers from getting involved, especially given that quarantines are only needed after someone shows symptoms. The disease is not passed through the air, and transmission requires contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is showing symptoms. The doctors also explained that there has never been a case of a disease like Ebola mutating to the point that the method of transmission changes.

The senators also pointed out that some other countries were barring travelers from Ebola-stricken nations, a step that members of Congress demanded last month.

The officials answered that doing this would make it much harder for American aid workers and scientists to travel to places where they are needed, which could harm efforts to curb the disease at its source. They also argued that if the United States took such a step -- which the scientists maintained was medically unnecessary -- other nations would likely follow suit, effectively isolating the infected regions and exacerbating the outbreak.

"If the United States of America does that, a lot of other nations are going to follow us," said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, noting that the United States has significantly reduced the number of people traveling from the affected region. "I don't want to see this country become a leader in isolating those three countries."

Some of the Republican senators still seemed a little skeptical, but they went out of their way to praise the health experts.

"The quality of the discussion and exchange we've had today is excellent, certainly to better inform the members of our committee," said the recently re-elected Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who stands to take the chairmanship of the appropriations panel.

Congress is expected to address the emergency funding request in the current lame-duck session, before the new Congress is sworn in in January.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

  • 1 Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    Not as far as we know. <a href="http://www.who.int/features/2014/ebola-myths/en/" target="_blank">Ebola isn't contagious unti
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
  • 2 You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne,
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
  • 3 Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
  • 4 Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals <i>want</i> to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
  • 5 Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly dia
    LEON NEAL via Getty Images
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
  • 6 Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Afric
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
  • 7 Ebola doesn't have a cure
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British su
    John Moore via Getty Images
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
  • 8 Ebola is a death sentence
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are m
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
  • 9 Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Just,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/06/ebola-zombie-risen-dead-viral-hoax_n_5937728.html" target="_blank">
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Just, no.
CONVERSATIONS