While emphasizing that an Ebola outbreak in the United States was unlikely, lawmakers on the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on Friday urged the federal government to add some Texas airports to the list of facilities performing enhanced screenings of travelers from three West African countries ravaged by the virus.
Before the hearing, the committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn sent a letter to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner asking the government to add the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to the list of five U.S. airports selected earlier this week for enhanced screening, which will include taking passengers' temperatures.
At the committee hearing in Dallas, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, echoed that sentiment.
"I think there was an error made to not designate the Bush Intercontinental Airport as one of the sites to have increased screening,” Jackson Lee said.
The hearing was held two days after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Duncan had traveled to Dallas from Liberia and was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Sept. 28 after he was diagnosed with the virus. He was initially sent home from an earlier trip to the hospital on Sept. 26, despite telling hospital staff that he had traveled from Africa.
"This crisis is unfolding at an alarming pace — thousands have died in Africa and thousands more have been infected,” McCaul said at the beginning of the hearing. "Now, the virus have begin to spread to other parts of the world — and the American people are rightfully concerned."
Experts who testified at the hearing said existing procedures and public health infrastructure would keep Ebola from spreading in the U.S.
"This is a disease that preys on poor public health and poor public health infrastructure,” Dr. Kathryn Brinsfield, the chief medical officer of the Department of Homeland Security, told the committee. "It is important to remember that the [Centers for Disease Control] has stated that the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is very low.”
Dr. Toby Merlin, the director of the CDC’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections, cautioned against a travel ban from countries with Ebola outbreaks, an option that some committee members inquired about Friday and that other politicians have touted. Merlin said actions to impede travel could slow interventions to stop the outbreak in West Africa.
"To stop it, we need uninhibited transit into and out of the countries,” Merlin said. "We may be able to stop it, if we focus our efforts and our resources on stopping it.”
Still, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, said his constituents were skeptical of reassurances from the government and experts. Farenthold has called for enhanced airport screenings and has floated the idea of ceasing all flights from West African countries as a possible measure. At the hearing, he added that Hollywood’s portrayal of infectious diseases hasn't helped calm his constituents.
"Every outbreak novel and zombie movie starts with somebody from the government sitting in front of panel like this, saying there's nothing to worry about,” Farenthold said.
At the hearing, Dr. Brett Giroir of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, whom Gov. Rick Perry has selected to lead the new Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response, said the U.S. could improve its ability to respond to infectious diseases like Ebola by restoring the position of special assistant to the president for biodefense and increasing federal funding for hospital preparedness programs.
Catherine Troisi, an associate professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, also emphasized prioritizing public health funding.
“The danger is we will be focused on this virus, and not other pathogens that have outbreak prediction,” Troisi said. “Congress must begin to prioritize public health funding, and not just when a crisis occurs.”
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins also addressed the committee, speaking about the response of local public officials and addressing controversy that arose after he visited Duncan’s family without wearing protective gear.
"It was important for them to see me as a normal human being, face to face,” Jenkins said. “We must not allow fear and panic to weaken our resolve, or force us to abandon the values that built this great country."
Disclosure: Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.