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Klain to Take Reins of Ebola Effort on Wednesday

Klain to Take Reins of Ebola Effort on Wednesday

By Alexis Simendinger - October 21, 2014

President Obama’s choice to lead the government’s Ebola response will begin work Wednesday, more than a month after Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian traveler infected with the disease, arrived in Dallas and subsequently transmitted the virus to two of nurses before his death.

"So far, we've only got one person dying of Ebola, but people are understandably concerned in part because they've seen what's happened in Africa,” Obama said Monday during a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Chicago.

“This is a virulent disease and it is up to us to once again mobilize the world's community to … make sure that … we're not seeing a continued epidemic and outbreak that can have a serious impact here," he said before urging his audience to help Democrats mobilize voters by Nov. 4.

His new Ebola response coordinator, Ron Klain, will have his work cut out for him.

A former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, Klain will be too new to the job to testify Friday at a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee hearing, convened to probe the government’s multi-agency response to date, the White House said. Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican and frequent Obama critic, expects his own tenure as leader of the watchdog panel to end in December, and he and his colleagues remain busy even in the current recess.

After weeks of resisting Republican lawmakers’ calls for an Ebola “czar,” Obama on Friday asked Klain, a respected attorney with deep roots in Democratic politics, to leave his job as president of Case Holdings for what has been described as a five- to six-month assignment.

Fifteen days before midterm elections, the administration is working overtime to slow the political momentum on Capitol Hill that would force a ban on travel to this country from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three most affected West African nations.

According to a tally compiled by The Hill newspaper, 72 members of the House, including nine Democrats, want Obama to protect Americans by imposing new travel restrictions, as 30 other countries have done. But the administration argues a ban is not guaranteed to prevent a small number of potential new Ebola cases from entering the United States, and would hamper international efforts to combat a disease that has infected more than 9,000 people and killed more than 4,500, predominantly in Africa, according to the latest official statistics.

On Monday, Florida Republican Marco Rubio said he will introduce legislation in the Senate to restrict travel visas from the affected countries, joining a number of Republicans who have said they will introduce similar measures in the House. The current Congress returns to Washington in mid-November, and a new Congress will be sworn in come January.

The administration has sidestepped specifics about whether it will ask Congress to approve new appropriations tied to Ebola, which could include resources for the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and possibly other agencies.

“At this moment, we have not made any decisions about whether we need increased resources so there’s no proposal that we are sending up at this time,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

The president spoke about Ebola topics by phone with congressional leaders last week, but neither the White House nor lawmakers would confirm that budget requests were a topic of conversation, and House Republican aides said no official requests for new resources had been submitted. Congress last week released an additional $700 million for the effort.

The White House may seek to leverage the nation’s alarm about Ebola to win Senate confirmation of a new U.S. surgeon general. Obama’s nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy has been locked up in the Senate since the National Rifle Association labeled the Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician an opponent of gun rights because of his view that gun violence in America is a public health issue.

Over the weekend and on Monday, the CDC took additional steps to control the U.S. response to the virus at the federal level. It tightened Ebola protocols for hospitals and health care workers, including instructions that clinicians who care for Ebola patients wear specific personal protective equipment that covers all exposed skin. 

The CDC also changed course to say Ebola patients are to be stabilized where they first present symptoms, after which confirmed cases of infection should be transferred to select hospitals designated to handle Ebola containment and treatment.

“This idea that every single hospital can take care of a seriously ill Ebola patient right now is just not true,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIH director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News on Sunday.

“So what we're going to be doing with the CDC and the state health authorities and the hospitals themselves,” he said, is “they must be able to identify and isolate, and then from there get them to a place where you have pre-trained people who know how to do it.”

Four hospitals are considered superior in treating Ebola patients, including the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, which Fauci said can handle two patients simultaneously and is treating one Dallas nurse now; Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which is treating a second nurse from Dallas; St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont.; and Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which has successfully treated Ebola patients.

Fauci said the government must have more than four hospitals prepared to render expert care to any new Ebola cases.  Just last week, the White House and the CDC said the goal was to send SWAT teams of federal experts to state and local hospitals to administer care to any confirmed Ebola patients. The new policy is to transfer any patients to the care of experts.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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