The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce Committee met Thursday to question health agencies about considering travel bans and to look into the manner in which two Dallas nurses were infected with Ebola. The committee was also alarmed by reports that one of the nurses traveled after being exposed.
Many Democrats said the epidemic is exacerbated by a shortage of funds for the National Institutes of Health,which has been under-funded for years.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden,director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,faced the brunt of questions from the Republican-led committee. The committee also frequently questioned National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Daniel Varga,senior vice president at Texas Health Resources.
Texas Health Resources is the health-care company that owns Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas where two nurses were infected with Ebola while treating Thomas Eric Duncan,who died at the hospital.
A second nurse in Dallas,Amber Vinson was confirmed to have Ebola Wednesday.
The committee was aggressive in questioning Frieden,Fauci and Varga about the hospital’s preparedness.
Rep. Diana DeGette,D-Colo.,asked what kind of protective equipment hospital staff was wearing and if nurses were outfitted before Duncan tested positive for Ebola.
DeGette asked Varga how long it took to get nurses treating a patient with diarrhea into shoe guards. She pointed out that Duncan was vomiting and had diarrhea before he was officially diagnosed.
Nurses may not have been protected enough,she said,even though the hospital suspected Duncan had Ebola the second time he arrived at the hospital. She repeatedly asked Varga if the nurses received actual training.
“No,” Varga said.
None of the witnesses could point to a specific incident that exposed nurses to bodily fluids that could have transmitted the disease.
“It’s hard for me to put into words how I felt,” he said.
Varga said both nurses were skilled and followed CDC protocol. The hospital is poring over records to find out what happened,he said.
“We’ve confirmed Nina [Pham] was wearing protective equipment the whole time,” he said. “We don’t know what the cause of the exposure was.”
Fauci said Pham,the first nurse to contract the deadly disease,was to be admitted to NIH Wednesday night for state-of-the-art care.
Rep. Tim Murphy,R-Pa.,the committee chair,asked Frieden if Vinson contacted the CDC before traveling on an airplane. Vinson flew to Ohio and back to Texas before she was diagnosed.
Frieden confirmed Vinson contacted the agency for guidance,but Frieden said as long as nurses wear protective gear,there’s no need to restrict their travel.
Murphy also questioned the president’s refusal to place a temporary ban on travel to West Africa. He asked if the White House had talked Frieden into being against travel bans.
“Why are we still allowing people to come over here?” he said. “The administration keeps insisting on bringing patients into the United States.”
Rep. Fred Upton,R-Mich.,asked why other countries,such as Jamaica,had travel bans in place.
“If our fundamental job is to protect the public,the administration does have the authority to impose a travel ban,” he said.
Frieden said he could not speak for the White House,but he said banning travel from West Africa will lead to people coming in through other places unchecked.
“Right now,we know who’s coming in,” he said.
Five U.S. airports this week began health screenings of travelers arriving from West Africa. Most travelers from the region arrive in the U.S. through those airports.
Democrats on the committee said the biggest problem was a lack of funding for NIH.
“This is a wake-up call for America that we cannot allow NIH funding to stall any longer,” Rep. Kathy Castor,D-Fla.,said.
She said there is not a large consumer market for Ebola drugs,so development will require government leadership.
Borio said the FDA is taking extraordinary steps to be proactive and flexible. Experimental drugs,such as ZMapp,have been used to treat Ebola in every case in the U.S. But these drugs are not approved by the FDA. These drugs could help,but they could also hurt,she said. Clinical trials are needed as soon as possible.
Robinson said his agency has a rapid-response team to make experimental medicines during outbreaks and is hard at work making ZMapp. He said the agency is developing an Ebola vaccine and a rapid response test.
Fauci said NIH struggled to get pharmaceutical partners due to low numbers of Ebola patients in past outbreaks.
“We were struggling,” he said. “Companies don’t like to take risks.”
Reach reporter Wesley Juhl at [email protected] or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.