White House names Ebola czar as it steps up response

White House names Ebola czar as it steps up response
Custodial workers prepare to clean Ruth Cherry Intermediate School, one of two schools outside Dallas closed as a precautionary measure after students were connected to a healthcare worker who treated an Ebola patient. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

With Americans' fears over random Ebola exposure fueled anew by scares on a cruise ship and a tour bus, the Obama administration moved Friday to fight accusations of incompetence from around Washington and on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm election.

President Obama named a veteran political operative, Ron Klain, to coordinate the government response in a move intended in part to restore public trust after a series of missteps by health authorities.


Facing relentless criticism from Republicans and pleas from Democrats locked in tight election races, White House officials even said they were considering proposals they have previously deemed an overreaction, including the possibility of imposing travel restrictions between the U.S. and the countries in West Africa where the Ebola outbreak is widespread.

Administration officials said they wouldn't rule out a ban on travel, despite their insistence a day before that such a move might inspire sick travelers to try to evade screening.

"The guiding principle will always be what's in the best interest of the American people and their health and welfare and safety," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

The shift in rhetoric came as the fear of infection spread, much more quickly than the threat of exposure to the deadly virus.

Spurring concern were fresh reports of possible Ebola exposure among tourists. Carnival Cruise Lines announced that it had confined a cruise ship passenger who is a lab supervisor at the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian who died from Ebola this month at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

And the Department of Defense said it shut down part of the Pentagon just outside Washington after a tourist who said she had recently visited Africa was found vomiting in a parking lot. Pentagon police cordoned off a large section of the lot, including the bus the tourist had traveled on, and called paramedics, who responded in hazardous materials gear. The woman turned out not to have Ebola, local health authorities said.

As of Friday, roughly 1,000 people were being watched for symptoms, asked to monitor themselves or urged to check with a counselor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None has exhibited symptoms.

The group includes some who have been ordered into quarantine, a larger group that is being closely watched with temperatures taken at least daily, and a much larger group who may have flown on a Frontier Airlines jetliner that carried Amber Vinson, one of two nurses who contracted Ebola after closely caring for Duncan.

Also Friday, Texas health officials asked 75 healthcare workers who were exposed to Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S., to sign a document that outlines new restrictions on their travel and movement. The restrictions, which come after Vinson's air travel, include staying off all public transportation and staying out of public spaces for 21 days from their last contact with Duncan. They also must monitor their conditions.

Vinson is being cared for at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Nina Pham, the first nurse who was infected with Ebola after caring for Duncan, was in fair condition, "stable and resting comfortably" and receiving intensive care in an isolation ward at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, officials said Friday.

"We will have her here until she is well and clear of the virus," said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She was sitting up, eating and interacting with the staff, Fauci said.

The fear of Ebola has spread from California to Connecticut, with false alarms across the country. And Friday's news about the cruise ship only further fueled anxiety, something the Obama administration has tried to put to rest.

For weeks, the White House spoke of the unlikelihood of a widespread outbreak in the U.S., partly in an effort to keep public panic at bay. But after Duncan traveled to Dallas and a series of failures in his care came to light, Obama was pressed to take more dramatic action.

On Friday, the president called on Klain, naming him Ebola response coordinator and clearing a path for him to begin work. As a longtime Democratic political operative, Klain is trusted within the White House as a political crisis manager and administrator with experience coordinating government bureaucracy. Included in his resume is a stint as Vice President Al Gore's top legal advisor during the 2000 election recount.

Democrats in competitive election battles welcomed the move. But Republicans asked why such a job should fall to a political operative with no medical training.

"I have to ask why the president didn't pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Installing someone with a political resume is "tone deaf," said Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House oversight and investigations subcommittee, arguing that the move would "do little to reassure Americans who are increasingly losing confidence with the administration's Ebola strategy."

The White House contended that Klain was right for the role. "What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert but rather an implementation expert, and that's exactly what Ron Klain is," Earnest said.

Fears of an Ebola outbreak are roiling the midterm congressional campaigns, putting candidates in a reactive mode at a time they had hoped to deliver their closing pitches.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll this month found the economy was still the leading issue voters said would determine their vote for Congress. But the same survey found that nearly two-thirds of Americans were concerned about the possibility of an Ebola epidemic in the United States.

Republicans are also calling for a travel ban and criticizing Obama for not imposing one.

"The White House thinks it's news that the president is canceling political events to focus on this. I think our voters are scratching their heads and saying, 'What took them so long?'" said Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat in a tough race, embraced the idea of a travel ban at the end of this week after previously brushing off the idea.

At a House hearing Thursday, one lawmaker said Congress might take up the question of a travel ban after the election if the Obama administration does not institute one on its own.

"People are asking that we do that, and they are exactly correct to make that request," said Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas), who represents a district that includes Dallas' northwest suburbs.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House's third-ranking Republican, said Obama didn't need a vote to take action. "He loves bragging about the things he can do with a pen and a phone," said Scalise, the majority whip. "He can approve a travel ban today."

Earnest dismissed the Republican critiques as mere politics. "Three weeks before election day," he said, "Republicans are seeking to score political points. Stop the presses!"

Parsons and Hennessey reported from Washington and Mohan from Dallas. Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli in Washington and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.