Ever since an Ebola case from Liberia arrived at a Dallas hospital last month, political pressure has been building on the Obama administration to restrict travel from the three West African countries where the disease has spread with frightening speed.
On Tuesday, the White House responded by tightening the restrictions it had put in place, announcing it would funnel travelers from those nations to five airports in the United States where nearly all of them already arrive.
The measure appeared designed to defend against criticism from Republicans over the administration’s response to the Ebola threat, and it highlighted the political back and forth that the virus has triggered just two weeks before the midterm election.
Starting Wednesday, airline passengers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea must fly into one of five airports that already receive about 94% of the 150 or so travelers who come to the U.S. each day from those three countries, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
“You are seeing put in place measures that are intended to protect the American public,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The added restrictions, which Earnest described as “creative policymaking,” stop short of the ban on travelers from the three countries that Republicans have called for. The GOP immediately labeled the new limits insufficient.
“The administration must do more to protect Americans,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who said he planned to introduce a resolution in favor of blocking the entry of all foreign nationals from countries with high rates of Ebola infections.
There are no direct flights from the three West Africa nations into the U.S., and screening for fever and other passenger checks began last week at the five international airports: John F. Kennedy in New York, Newark Liberty in New Jersey, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta.
Health and security experts, including at the World Health Organization, have cautioned against an outright travel ban. They say it could complicate efforts to send in medical personnel and supplies where they are needed most and could also drive patients underground, making it even harder to halt the virus’ spread.
President Obama has concluded for now that a travel ban would hurt, not help, Earnest said.
“A travel ban would only serve to put the American people at greater risk,” he said. “Individuals who have spent time in West Africa would … conceal the true nature of their travel history.”
Intensive screenings prior to air travel and upon arrival are more effective, Earnest said. Still, he added that Obama wasn’t ruling out a travel ban at some point if the situation called for it.
“The president’s open to it,” Earnest said. “He’s not philosophically opposed to a travel ban.”
Limiting travel to the U.S. by people from the three West African countries has overwhelming public support.
By more than 2 to 1, Americans backed “restricting entry to the United States by people who have been in affected countries,” a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday found. By 91% to 6%, Americans supported “stricter screening” of people from those countries.
But public concerns have grown much faster than the number of cases of the illness in the country. A Pew Research Center survey Tuesday found that 41% of Americans said they worried they or someone in their families would be exposed to the virus, up from 32% two weeks ago.
The survey was conducted before dozens of Dallas residents exposed to Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia, the one Ebola patient to die in the United States, were told they had not been infected.
The survey also showed that a majority of Americans expressed some confidence that the government could “prevent a major outbreak” of the virus in the U.S.
The government’s handling of the Ebola response has become a hot topic during campaign stops two weeks before the midterm election.
Republicans, who have long cast doubts on the Obama administration’s competence, began questioning federal preparedness early on. The GOP Senate candidate in North Carolina, Thom Tillis, became one of the first in the party to publicly suggest a travel ban. Others quickly followed, often accompanied by calls for Democratic opponents to join them.
On Tuesday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he wanted the administration to temporarily stop giving visas to people from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
And Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said he would introduce legislation to suspend visas when Congress returned next month.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, no one has tested positive for Ebola since enhanced screening began at the five airports.
Of the 562 passengers who have gone through screening, three were found to have elevated temperatures and four were taken to a medical facility on the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At all land and seaports, immigration officers have been instructed to pull aside anyone who has traveled to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea in the previous 21 days, the incubation period for the virus. Immigration officers are alerted to passengers’ travel to West Africa by databases that track airline manifests and other travel information.
Representatives of the travel industry, which could lose revenue if flights from West Africa were shut down, praised the administration’s new restrictions.
“This announcement will achieve the aim of keeping sick people out of the U.S., without abandoning whole countries in their efforts to fight Ebola or driving travelers from those countries ‘underground’ in attempts to reach the U.S.,” Roger Dow, the president of the U.S. Travel Assn., said in a statement.
The new approach avoids “a policy overreaction with harmful unintended consequences,” Dow said.
The Ebola presence in the U.S. has attracted the attention even of Americans who normally pay little notice to the news. Almost everyone surveyed by Pew, 98%, said they had heard about the threat, with 49% saying they were tracking the news on Ebola “very closely.”
Near Dallas, a new Ebola healthcare facility will open with staff equipped and trained to respond quickly to new cases, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced Tuesday.
The biocontainment unit will be the second in the state, along with one in Galveston that has handled infectious disease cases for more than a decade. Notably absent is Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where Duncan was treated and two of his nurses became infected.
At a news conference, Perry compared the Ebola response to a military operation, and said it was time to give Texas Health Presbyterian a break.
The condition of one of the nurses, Nina Pham, was upgraded to good from fair. She was transferred last week to a National Institutes of Health clinic near Washington.
Another Ebola patient, NBC News freelancer Ashoka Mukpo, was declared free of infection Tuesday, according to the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Mukpo will be allowed to leave the center’s biocontainment facility on Wednesday, the hospital said.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Lauren Raab in Los Angeles, David Lauter in Washington and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Dallas contributed to this report.