Last Thursday, Oct. 16, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations called its members back from the campaign trail for a hearing addressing the U.S. public health response to the Ebola outbreak. Witnesses included Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden, MD; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, MD; and Chief Clinical Officer of Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas Daniel Varga, MD.
Frieden updated the committee on the CDC’s work to continue combating Ebola, including new measures at five major airports that collectively see 94 percent of traffic from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa. He also stressed the importance of real-time diagnostics to identify new cases and noted congressionally approved funding included in the continuing resolution passed before Congress adjourned in September, which is being used to support medical staff, travel, security, laboratory capacity, infection control, and other efforts surrounding the Ebola outbreak. The CDC plans to evaluate the need for additional funding going forward. Frieden also addressed the issue of the two U.S. health care workers who have contracted the virus after treating the first U.S.-diagnosed Ebola patient in Dallas.
Varga, who works at the Dallas hospital that treated the patient and employs the two infected workers, apologized for the hospital’s mistakes in early diagnosis of the first patient.
Fauci discussed NIAID’s early work to develop investigational candidate therapeutics for Ebola, which are limited, but could potentially be used in clinical trials for people currently fighting the virus. Fauci also testified that two Ebola vaccine candidates are undergoing clinical testing this fall to determine if they could be useful in current or future outbreaks – NIAID also supports other ongoing Ebola vaccine efforts. Fauci emphasized that while NIAID is trying to expedite its work with biopharmaceutical companies to combat Ebola, the known effective treatments for Ebola, such as hydration and replacing lost electrolytes, are critical to treating current infections.
During the hearing, committee Republicans pushed for a travel ban from impacted West African countries, arguing that the airport screening currently under way is insufficient. The Obama administration has stated that a travel ban could worsen the situation and would likely encourage travelers to find other ways into the country, leading to increased difficulty screening at-risk individuals. Committee Democrats echoed the administration’s position, opposing a travel ban.
On Oct. 17, President Obama appointed Ron Klain, former chief of staff for Vice President Biden, as the nation’s new Ebola czar. Some congressional Republicans have criticized the choice of Klain, noting that he is not an expert in pandemic response.
America’s Essential Hospitals continues to serve as a resource for hospitals preparing for Ebola in the United States.