Trying to calm an increasingly alarmed public, President Obama on Saturday urged Americans to keep the Texas Ebola cases “in perspective,” as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared new guidelines for healthcare workers who might handle patients with the deadly virus.
In his weekly radio address, Obama stressed that in a nation of more than 300 million people, only three Ebola cases have been diagnosed. “This is a serious disease,” he said, “but we can't give in to hysteria or fear, because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need.”
The remarks came amid a growing public concern over the virus that has killed 4,500 people in West Africa and last month landed in the U.S. when Thomas Eric Duncan arrived in Dallas from Liberia. Duncan died of the disease Oct. 8, and two registered nurses who treated him at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas have since contracted Ebola.
Nurses Amber Vinson and Nina Pham have been transferred to facilities better prepared for such treatment. Vinson arrived at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Wednesday, and Pham was moved to the National Institutes of Health clinical center in Bethesda, Md., the next day.
On Saturday, Ohio officials detailed efforts to monitor people who may have come in contact with Vinson. She flew on a Frontier Airlines flight to Ohio last weekend, returning Monday to Dallas, where she reported a fever and was diagnosed with an Ebola infection.
Ohio Gov. Jon Kasich said 116 people who may have had contact with Vinson were being monitored, and one was placed under quarantine. Twenty-nine of those people were considered “close contacts” of Vinson, according to Mary DiOrio, state epidemiologist, while health officials were also monitoring 87 people who were on Vinson’s flight.
Kasich said none of the patients had shown symptoms. “The more time that passes here, we’re getting through this incubation period,” he said, “and God willing everybody will be healthy on the other side.”
The 116 Ohioans being monitored are under various levels of scrutiny. Some have been required to meet with a physician daily, according to DiOrio, while others have been asked to self-monitor their temperatures and have daily phone contact with a medical professional.
In Dallas, 48 people who came in contact with Duncan were being monitored for possible Ebola symptoms during the 21-day incubation period. A few have already cleared the 21-day period. The bulk of them, including a high-risk group of 10 people, are expected to end the monitoring period midnight Monday, said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
“This is a critical weekend. If we don't see new patients, we'll see the remainder of the 48 come off the list,” said Jenkins, the highest elected Dallas County official. “We're right in the middle of a hot zone.”
Another Dallas healthcare worker, identified only as a laboratory supervisor, remained isolated in a cabin of the Carnival Magic cruise ship, which was in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday morning, headed for Texas, after having been refused port access in Mexico due to the worker’s presence. The ship was expected to dock in Galveston on Sunday.
The healthcare worker is not ill, but was under watch because she may have been in contact with laboratory specimens from Duncan, according to CDC officials. The lab supervisor embarked on the weeklong cruise before either of the two nurses was diagnosed with the infection, at a time when the CDC had categorized her in a very low exposure category.
In his Saturday address, Obama said he has come into physical contact with medical professionals who have treated Ebola patients, and he has not gotten sick. “Ebola is actually a difficult disease to catch. It's not transmitted through the air like the flu. You cannot get it from just riding on a plane or a bus. The only way that a person can contract the disease is by coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of somebody who is already showing symptoms.”
He noted that he has hugged doctors and nurses who have treated Ebola patients. “I've met with an Ebola patient who recovered, right in the Oval Office. And I'm fine,” he said.
Obama said banning all flights to the U.S. from West Africa was not a solution that would slow the spread of the disease. The president added that restricting such flights “could cause people in the affected region to change their travel, to evade screening, and make the disease even harder to track.”
But critics have said Obama has acted too slowly to head off Ebola. Some argue that newly named U.S. Ebola “czar” Ron Klain, a lawyer and former chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden, lacks the medical credentials to meet the challenge. Obama did not mention Klain on Saturday.
This week, protesters — one dressed in a hazmat outfit — picketed the White House.
On one commercial flight arriving in Dallas late Friday, at least a dozen people wore surgical masks despite government assurances that Ebola is not spread through the air.
Also Saturday, friends and family of Duncan gathered in a small Baptist church in rural North Carolina to remember the first Ebola victim in the U.S.
Mohan reported from Dallas and Queally from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Dallas contributed to this report.