WASHINGTON – The question of what has happened to newly appointed Ebola czar Ron Klain was answered Wednesday afternoon at a White House messaging event.
The message as the event in the East Room unfolded appeared to be President Obama is preparing the way for Americans to understand why closing borders to West Africa would not be an effective way to stop the Ebola crisis from becoming a worldwide pandemic.
The unspoken background of the White House event remained the continued opposition to travel bans or mandatory quarantines, and the possibility the State Department might decide to permit Ebola-infected foreign-nationals from seeking treatment here.
As the event began at 4 p.m., the newly appointed Ebola czar, Klain, was the last person to be seated, taking a place in the front row.
Reporters spotted among the audience Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, Department of Homeland Security presidential adviser Lisa Monaco, former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
After Klain was seated as two unidentified men in lab coats entered and stood on the podium, followed by various health-care workers the White House identified as having just returned from West Africa, or about to travel to there, to treat Ebola patients.
The White House identified the audience as primarily health-care workers and representatives of various nongovernmental health organizations, as well as “the faith and African diaspora communities and individuals from across the government” working as part of the Obama administration’s “whole-of-government response to Ebola.”
Obama was introduced by Dr. Kent Brantly, the Samaritan’s Purse physician who contracted Ebola in Liberia and recovered after being evacuated to the United States, where he was treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
“President Obama is an international leader, representing the best interests of us all as global citizens,” Brantly said.
Obama quipped that Brantly had “gained a little weight since before I saw him last.”
While the Ebola czar did not say a word throughout the event, the staging and structuring of it appeared to bear the marks of his long experience inside the Beltway as a manager of political messages.
Beginning his prepared remarks, Obama explained to the audience that he had just come from a meeting in the Situation Room with health-care professionals and his public health and national security teams.
“As I said yesterday,” Obama began, “we know that the best way to protect Americans from Ebola is to stop the outbreak at its source. And we’re honored to be joined today by some of the extraordinary American health workers who are on the front lines of the fight in West Africa.”
Obama continued, making personal references to his involvement with Ebola victims.
“Now, over the past few weeks, I’ve met and spoken with doctors and nurses who have treated Ebola patients,” he said. “That includes some who’ve been diagnosed with and beaten Ebola themselves, like Kent, and like nurse Nina Pham, who I was proud to welcome to the Oval Office.”
Obama noted that United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power reported on her recent trip to West Africa, where members of the U.S. military, including the 101 Airborne, are working to build Ebola treatment facilities.
“We need to call them what they are,” Obama said of the U.S. health care workers treating Ebola patients on the “front line” in West Africa, “American heroes that show what is possible when America leads.”
In his comments about the U.S. military, Obama made no reference to the Department of Defense policy announced Wednesday that all U.S. troops returning home from West Africa would spend 21 days in quarantine. Army Major General Darryl Williams, the commander of the U.S. Army Africa Force, and 10 others of the 101st are currently quarantined at a U.S. military base near Vicenza, Italy.
Obama asserted that because of U.S. leadership, the spirit has changed in the West African nations affected by the current Ebola outbreak.
“This is what has happened because of America leadership,” Obama said. “This is American exceptionalism.”
Obama spoke derisively about unspecified policies that discourage health-care workers from traveling to West Africa.
“But we have to keep in mind that if we’re discouraging our health-care workers, who are prepared to make these sacrifices, from traveling to these places in need, then we’re not doing our job in terms of looking after our own public health and safety,” he said. “What we are – what we need right now is these shock troops who are out there leading globally. We can’t discourage that; we’ve got to encourage it and applaud it.”
Silent about quarantine
Obama made no direct reference to the mandatory 21-day quarantine for anyone who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The White House has issued a warning to the governors of “unintended consequences,” and Kaci Hickox, a Doctors Without Borders volunteer in Sierra Leone who was detained in New Jersey, has defied the order.
Nor did Obama make reference to the controversy that has developed since the leaking of an internal State Department memo recommending the U.S. allow foreign health-care workers who contract Ebola in West Africa to come to the U.S. for treatment.
“The truth is that until we stop this outbreak in West Africa, we may continue to see individual cases in America in the weeks and months ahead, because that’s the nature of today’s world,” Obama continued. “We can’t hermetically seal ourselves off. The nature of international travel and movement means that the only way to assure that we are safe is to make sure that we have dealt with the disease where right now it is most acute.”
He went on to prepare Americans, saying “we are likely” to see more Ebola cases brought to the U.S.
“As long as Ebola exists in the world, no one can promise that there won’t be any more cases in America or any place else,” the president stressed. “To prevent its spread and ultimately to keep Americans safe, we have to go to the source while preparing for the few cases that we see here and protecting our health-care workers who are treating patients both here at home and abroad.”
Obama ended on an upbeat note.
“I know that with all the headlines and all the news, that people are scared. I know that Ebola has concerned them,” Obama said.
“But the reason I’m so proud of this country is because when there are times where we need to step up and do the right thing, we do the right thing. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. No other nation is doing as much to help in West Africa as are the people of the United States.”