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Ebola Response: Coordinated But Not Cohesive

Ebola Response: Coordinated But Not Cohesive

By Alexis Simendinger - October 30, 2014

Ron Klain was among the last to enter the East Room on Wednesday, the first to stand to applaud President Obama, and something of a smiling usher as more than 200 invited health and science guests filed out more than 20 minutes later.

As the president’s Ebola response coordinator for exactly a week, Klain has been busy. Events suggest as much, and the president’s spokesman offers general accounts of Klain contributions when reporters keep asking, day after day. But when a journalist waved at Klain, beckoning him to join the photographers and reporters roped off along the side of the East Room, he just smiled.

Click, click, click. A dozen camera shutters made a racket when the photojournalists spied him. Klain, as the White House advertised when he signed up as a consultant, was seen, but still not heard.

That’s because the nation’s Ebola spokesman is the president. He joined a stage at which a dozen public health and medical specialists, including Ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly, assembled to salute America’s science and sanity in combating a deadly virus in West Africa.

For more than 10 minutes, the president explained the mechanics of Ebola transmission, updated everyone on the lone hospitalized patient in New York City and others who recovered after treatment in the United States, and the projection that new infections “are likely” in countries beyond Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

He did not mention nurse Kaci Hickox, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, who is at home in isolation in Maine after being freed from a weekend of compulsory hospital quarantine in New Jersey. Through her attorney, she’s threatening to go to court if authorities don’t release her from voluntary home confinement, which was recommended in Maine because of fears she could carry the virus after returning from Sierra Leone. Hickox is not ill.

Obama will be in Portland on Thursday to campaign for Mike Michaud, the Democratic congressman who is in a neck-and-neck race to defeat Republican Gov. Paul LePage. The governor, in a statement Wednesday, said he may seek legal authority to force Hickox to comply with a quarantine.

In saluting doctors, nurses, and U.S. public health personnel for their work among stricken patients on the African continent, Obama said the United States was leading other nations in the Ebola battle because Americans are guided not by “fear, not hysteria, not misinformation; we act clearly and firmly even when others are losing their heads. That’s part of the reason why we’re effective. That’s part of the reason why people look to us.”

If Obama meant to take a swipe at other nations that pledged aid to West Africa and have not delivered, he left his rebukes open for interpretation.

If he was angered by Maine’s governor, or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn -- all of whom crafted quarantine policies that went beyond guidance issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the president did not take them on directly.

“When I hear people talking about American leadership and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” Obama said.

If the president imagined, as he promised during brief remarks Tuesday, that he could clear up confusion about CDC quarantine policy recommended for civilian health professionals serving in Africa, versus a new Pentagon quarantine policy that applies to military personnel returning from the region, he apparently changed his mind over the course of 24 hours.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced changes Wednesday morning, which Obama did not reference in his remarks hours later.

According to the CDC, health workers who care for Ebola patients and travel to the United States may not need compulsory isolation for three weeks, depending on their exposure and circumstances. But when U.S. troops -- none of whom provides patient care in the region -- return from West Africa to other assignments, all will face a 21-day “incubation period,” Hagel said. He called the policy, which was pushed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a “safety valve.”

When it comes to Ebola, “coordinating all that nationally as well as internationally is a process, and there are constant tweaks and modifications as lessons are learned,” Obama said with some understatement near the end of his speech.

Klain leaped to his feet, standing next to senior White House advisers, National Institutes of Health medical experts, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He clapped, one observer noted, in coordination.

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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