Congress scrutinizes handling of Ebola cases in Texas

“Texas Presbyterian is dealing with a difficult situation,”  said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (left), director of the CDC.
“Texas Presbyterian is dealing with a difficult situation,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (left), director of the CDC.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON — At a congressional hearing Thursday in which they faced sharp questioning about the flawed handling of Ebola cases in the United States, federal health officials said a nurse infected with Ebola at a Dallas hospital will be transferred to a specialized unit at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.

The hospital is straining in its efforts to monitor dozens of other health care workers who might have been exposed to the virus, the officials said.

The nurse, Nina Pham, was part of the medical team at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital that cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who died of Ebola last week. She will be moved to the NIH facility in Bethesda, Md., at the request of the hospital, officials said.


Pham is in stable condition. A second nurse infected at Texas Presbyterian was moved Wednesday to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which has successfully treated two American Ebola patients.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday that the Dallas hospital was consumed with monitoring dozens of employees for signs of illness.

“Texas Presbyterian is dealing with a difficult situation,” Frieden said. “They are now dealing with at least 50 health care workers who may potentially have been exposed. That makes it quite challenging to operate, and we felt it would be more prudent to focus on caring for any patients who come in with symptoms.”

The Obama administration spent the day trying anew to tamp down fear as the pool of Americans being monitored for symptoms expanded. President Obama said he might appoint a single official to lead the nation’s efforts against the deadly disease.

Obama authorized a call-up of reserve and National Guard troops in case they are needed. His executive order would allow more forces than the up-to 4,000 already planned to be sent to West Africa and for longer periods of time.


At the hearing on Capitol Hill, which placed the government’s halting response to the virus in the United States into the realm of politics, Representative Tim Murphy, Republican of Pennsylvania, opened with scathing criticism.

“Mistakes have been made,” he said. “Trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning. That trust must be restored.”

One sharp line of questioning from lawmakers dealt with travel. Duncan had flown to Dallas from Liberia, where Ebola has killed hundreds, and on Wednesday it was revealed that Amber Joy Vinson, the second nurse infected at the Dallas hospital, had traveled on a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas the day before she showed symptoms.

Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, reiterated calls for a full travel ban from affected countries; Frieden and other public health officials have said such measures would be counterproductive.

Obama, who met into the evening with top aides and health officials at the White House, said afterward he had no ‘‘philosophical objection’’ to imposing a travel ban on West Africa but had been told by health and security experts that it would be less effective than measures already in place — and perhaps would be counterproductive.

He said a ban could result in people trying to hide where they were coming from.

At the congressional hearing, Upton asked how Vinson was able to board a flight after she reported having a fever.


“On this issue, there is no time to wait,” he said. “People are scared. We need all hands on deck. We need a strategy.”

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, called on federal health officials to reassure the public.

“Put this in perspective,” Waxman said. “We’ve had three recent cases of Ebola in this country. We should be concerned about these cases — we need to act urgently, but we need not to panic.”

Ebola is one of the world’s most lethal diseases, but it is contagious only through contact with bodily fluids, and health officials say it is highly unlikely that passengers on Vinson’s flight were at risk.

Also on Thursday, Dr. Daniel Varga, the chief clinical officer for Texas Health Resources, the medical group that oversees Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, apologized for what he said were mistakes made by the hospital in the original diagnosis of Ebola and in providing inaccurate information.

“In our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes,” he said in remarks prepared for the hearing.

“We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. And we are deeply sorry.”

Duncan was seen in the emergency room but was sent home, with no test for Ebola.

Varga said that Duncan “met several of the criteria of the Ebola algorithm,” when he arrived at the hospital Sept. 28. He said CDC protocols had been followed, although Wednesday he had acknowledged that workers did not wear full biohazard suits for two days.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.