ATLANTA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the second of two nurses infected while treating an Ebola patient left an Atlanta hospital, President Barack Obama on Tuesday said policies adopted in the United States should not discourage Americans willing to fight West Africa’s outbreak.
Obama weighed in for the first time since states including New York and New Jersey imposed automatic 21-day quarantines on doctors and nurses returning from the three countries at the heart of the outbreak - rules that go beyond federal guidelines.
“We don’t want to discourage our healthcare workers from going to the front lines and dealing with this in an effective way,” Obama told reporters at the White House South Lawn.
Obama said that these medical workers, often volunteers for international humanitarian groups, should be “applauded, thanked and supported.”
“And we can make sure that when they come back, they are being monitored in a prudent fashion. But we want to make sure that we understand that they are doing God’s work over there. And they’re doing that to keep us safe,” Obama added.
Some states have imposed their own safeguards, including mandatory quarantines for doctors and nurses returning from the three countries at the center of the epidemic, saying federal policies do not adequately protect the public. Some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have criticized the response by Obama’s administration as inept.
The president is likely to emphasize his support for traveling Ebola medics in a speech set for Wednesday afternoon at a White House event with doctors and nurses who are volunteering in West Africa.
Federal health officials and others have criticized stricter state measures as potentially counterproductive, saying they could deter American doctors and other healthcare professionals from volunteering to help fight the epidemic at its source in West Africa.
“We don’t want to do things that aren’t based on science and best practices because if we do then we’re just putting another barrier on somebody who’s already doing really important work on our behalf,” Obama said, noting that containing the outbreak in Africa will make Americans safer from Ebola.
The first person quarantined under New Jersey’s policy was Kaci Hickox, a nurse who tested negative for the virus but was isolated for days in a tent at a Newark hospital. She said her “basic human rights” were violated.
In another sign of how Ebola fears have affected many communities, a father sued a Connecticut school on Tuesday, saying his 7-year-old daughter was discriminated against and banned from school based on irrational fears of Ebola because she attended a wedding in Nigeria.
“We’re hoping this will get her back into school as soon as possible,” the girl’s mother, Ikeolapo Opayemi, said in a brief interview with Reuters at their home.
In Atlanta, nurse Amber Vinson, 29, was released from Emory University Hospital after being declared virus-free last Friday. Obama said he spoke with Vinson by telephone on Tuesday.
“I‘m so grateful to be well,” a smiling Vinson told reporters at Emory University Hospital before hugging the doctors and nurses who had treated her since Oct. 15.
“While this is a day for celebration and gratitude, I ask that we not lose focus on the thousands of families who continue to labor under the burden of this disease in West Africa,” added Vinson, looking fit.
The infections of the nurses in a Dallas hospital at the beginning of October illustrated the initial lack of preparedness in the U.S. public health system to safely deal with Ebola, which has killed about 5,000 people in three impoverished West African countries - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone - and raised fears of a wider outbreak.
The other nurse who worked at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Nina Pham, 26, was declared virus-free on Friday, left the Maryland hospital where she had been treated and met with Obama.
Vinson and Pham treated Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who had traveled to Dallas in late September. He was the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States and he died on Oct. 8.
With concerns mounting over the spread of the virus, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is considering a recommendation from top military commanders for a “quarantine-like” 21-day monitoring period for all U.S. troops returning from Ebola response efforts in West Africa.
This follows an announcement on Monday by the Army that it has started isolating soldiers returning from the West Africa mission at their home base in Vicenza in northeastern Italy, even though they showed no symptoms of infection and were not believed to have been exposed to the virus. The question then became whether all the branches of the military would do so.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Hagel has not made a final decision on the military-wide quarantine recommendation, which would require a “regimented program of 21 days of controlled, supervised monitoring.” That step is far more strict than guidelines recommended by civilian health authorities.
The U.S. military has repeatedly stressed that its personnel are not interacting with Ebola patients and are instead building treatment units to help health authorities battle the epidemic. Up to 4,000 U.S. troops may be deployed on the mission.
Obama said America’s military was in a “different situation” than healthcare workers. While civilians may be discouraged from volunteering if they face quarantine on their return, troops were sent as part of their mission and could expect such inconveniences.
Obama also sought to reassure Americans about the threat posed by Ebola. He noted that only two people have contracted Ebola on American soil: Vinson and Pham.
The lone patient now being treated for Ebola in the United States is a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, 33, who was diagnosed on Thursday. He had worked with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, treating Ebola patients in Guinea.
“This disease can be contained,” Obama said. “It will be defeated. Progress is possible. But we’re going to have to stay vigilant. And we’ve got to make sure that we’re working together.”
Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Doina Chiacu, Chris Helgren, Roberta Rampton, Phil Stewart and David Alexander; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker