Republicans take aim at U.S. Ebola response after fourth case emerges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans with an eye on next month’s congressional elections ratcheted up their criticism of President Barack Obama’s response to Ebola on Friday after the emergence of a fourth U.S. case heightened public anxiety about the disease spreading outside of West Africa.

Witnesses are sworn in before testifying at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to "examine the federal government's response to the Ebola virus in the U.S. and the effectiveness of interagency coordination to contain the disease" on Capitol Hill October 24, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is a constant critic of Democrat Obama’s administration, said the response had been inept, characterized by over-confidence and ill-considered procedures to protect U.S. healthcare workers at home and military personnel deployed to help the worst-hit West African nations.

“Any further fumbles, bumbles or missteps ... can no longer be tolerated,” Issa told a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that required lawmakers to return to Washington from the campaign trail.

The federal government’s Ebola response has emerged as an issue in congressional election campaigns across the country. On Nov. 4, Republicans will have an opportunity to take control of the Senate from Democrats. The Republicans already control the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republicans have criticized the administration’s response by trying to tie Democrats to an unpopular president and Ebola fears. Meanwhile, vulnerable Democrats have increasingly signaled openness to restrictions on travel from West Africa.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that he did not see much of the hearing chaired by Issa, dismissing what he called partisan attacks. “It does seem that most of the criticism was registered by somebody who struggled to pronounce the name of the virus,” Earnest said.

At Friday’s hearing, the administration also came under fire over a gap in regulations that allow people returning from either Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea - where Ebola has killed at least 4,877 people - to resume normal routines before knowing whether they have the virus.

The fourth U.S. case, diagnosed on Thursday in New York City, is a doctor who treated Ebola patients in Guinea. He was hospitalized less than a week after returning to the United States via Belgium.

Defense Department witnesses said at the hearing that returning troops will be monitored for 21 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus, as they return to the United States and resume their normal routines. The military’s monitoring period had previously been 10 days.

Ebola’s first appearance on U.S. soil last month in a Liberian visitor to Texas, Thomas Eric Duncan, led to a series of public health missteps. Duncan died on Oct. 8 and two nurses who treated him were infected. On Friday, health officials declared them both free of the virus.

To date, Republicans have led public appeals for the White House to impose a travel ban on the three West African nations. But Obama has resisted on advice from health officials who say Ebola poses no major threat in the United States and that a ban could make it harder to track travelers from the region.

Instead, the administration has rolled out a new safety protocol to protect U.S. healthcare workers who care for Ebola patients, and beefed up screening and monitoring procedures.

“Simply having those thermal scans and interviews at the five airport hubs isn’t going to satisfy people who are concerned about minimizing the risk,” said Stephen Morrison of the Centers for Strategic and International Studies.

At Friday’s hearing, lawmakers from both parties also expressed interest in imposing new mandatory standards for protective gear, training and education at U.S. hospitals.

The hearing was mostly cordial, but included a few sharp jabs. Issa accused Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of giving “false information” about the dangers of infection and the safety of treatment protocols that failed to protect the nurses.

“We have the head of the CDC, who’s supposed to be the expert, and he’s made statements that simply aren’t true,” Issa said. Frieden was not among the hearing’s four government witnesses. A CDC spokesman said Frieden and the CDC have been “open, honest, and transparent from the very beginning of the Ebola epidemic”.

Rabih Torbay of the humanitarian group International Medical Corps told lawmakers that the current response by the United States and other countries could contain the West African outbreak, the worst on record, within four to six months.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool