The Cable

Doctors: CDC’s New Ebola Tracking Plan Is Political Theater

This story has been updated.  A day after the Obama administration announced travel restrictions from West African nations — restrictions that federal public-health officials had once said were unnecessary — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that passengers coming from Ebola-stricken countries would be monitored for symptoms for 21 days. Under the ...

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

This story has been updated. 

A day after the Obama administration announced travel restrictions from West African nations — restrictions that federal public-health officials had once said were unnecessary — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that passengers coming from Ebola-stricken countries would be monitored for symptoms for 21 days.

Under the new policy, passengers arriving in the United States from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea will be checked for fever or other Ebola-like symptoms by state and local public-health officials. In addition, according to CDC Director Tom Frieden, the passengers will be given medical kits so they can monitor their own symptoms. The announcement came just hours before President Barack Obama sat down with his Ebola czar, Ron Klain, a former political operative whose appointment drew fire from Republicans because he isn’t a public-health expert.

Entry into the United States by West African travelers is limited to five airports — John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Newark’s Liberty in New Jersey, Chicago’s O’Hare, Virginia’s Dulles, and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. Since Oct. 11, 562 passengers from the region, the center of the Ebola outbreak, have arrived in the United States.

So far, none of the 562 who have been monitored under the CDC program has tested positive for Ebola. Details on how they would be monitored over the next three weeks were scant. According to Bryan Lewis, an infectious-disease expert at Virginia Tech University, the monitoring lacks true medical value.

"It’s going to be very hard to implement and would have minimal yield in terms of finding other patients," Lewis said. "It seems like an extra thing to assure the population that we’re doing every extra step that we can."

"It seems like this extended screening of folks coming in is an effort that could be better spent" monitoring patients in emergency rooms and doctor’s offices, he added.

The monitoring, combined with the flight restrictions, amounts to an about-face for the Obama administration. Last week, public-health officials told lawmakers critical of the president’s response to the three Ebola cases on American soil that travel bans were unnecessary.

However, as Ebola fears have crept into midterm elections that could swing the Senate to GOP control, the Obama administration has been more proactive in its actions to ensure that the deadly virus doesn’t infect anyone else in the United States.

"I think this is due in part to political pressure. There is this concern among the public that after [West African travelers are] through security in the airlines, they’re free to go anywhere," David Dausey, a Yale-trained epidemiologist who works on controlling pandemics and who is dean of the School of Health Professions and Public Health at Mercyhurst University, told FP.

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