CDC Director Grilled by Congress Over Ebola Mess

CDC Director Grilled by Congress Over Ebola Mess
Photo from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Thursday, and boy, was it rough.

Frieden, previously known as the guy who urged New York's then-Mayor Bloomberg to go after cigarettes, soda sizes and trans fats, is now the face of the organization that appears to have repeatedly dropped the ball since the country's first Ebola case was confirmed in Dallas on September 30.

Things looked bad enough for Frieden after another of Thomas Eric Duncan's nurses tested positive for Ebola this week. Then it turned out that the nurse, Amber Vinson, flew from Cleveland to Dallas with a 99.5 degree temperature the day before she started showing clear-cut symptoms of the disease. And then it turned out that the CDC had cleared her for travel, a move that flies in the face of the agency's own protocols.

And then Frieden and other public health officials had to appear before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Thursday. There are probably worse circumstances under which to head into a grilling by a House subcommittee, but off the top of our head, we can't think of any.

Sure enough, committee members were thoroughly irate over some of the epic missteps we've seen thus far. There were intent questions for Dr. Daniel Varga, the chief clinical officer of Texas Health Resources, the owners of Texas Health Presbyterian, about how Duncan was treated and what kind of protective gear his caregivers were provided by the hospital. In his prepared statement, Varga actually apologized for his hospital's part in things:

"Unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes. We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry."

There were thorny questions for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about how Ebola should have been handled. But the bulk of the committee's ire was aimed at Frieden.

Since Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola on September 30, Frieden has been the soothing voice of benign reassurance that local and federal officials had everything under control. The problem being, of course, that this wasn't exactly true, and the truth about how Texas Presbyterian and local, state and federal officials handled the nation's first Ebola case has been nothing like the orderly containment described by Frieden over the past few weeks. (On Thursday morning, there were already calls for Frieden's resignation before he even got to the hearing.)

The House committee hearing gave the Republican and Democratic lawmakers a rare chance to actually agree on an issue. Of course, the Republicans are blaming the Obama administration for the mishandling of the disease, while the Democrats are assigning fault to Republican budget cuts, because it is election season, after all, and Ebola is becoming the big issue, as NPR pointed out. And in the middle of all this blame stands Frieden.

Frieden eventually admitted that the CDC is still in the dark about how two of Duncan's nurses got the disease. He acknowledged that Duncan was not put in isolation until tests confirmed he had Ebola, but Frieden explained that away as protocol. He was full of reassurances that the system in place will work if and (let's face it) most likely when another Ebola patient shows up in the United States. Questioning by the committee revealed that the government has sped up funding to work on both a vaccine and a cure for the disease.

Meanwhile, people watching Vinson's transfer to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, noted that while a hazmat suit-clad Vinson was being loaded onto a plane in Dallas, surrounded by nurses also in hazmat suits, a man holding a clipboard hovered nearby without anything in the way of protection, according to CBS. (It turned out he was a transportation company's medical safety coordinator and he was sans safety gear so that he could be the eyes and ears of the company, as per company policy. Because apparently you can't see or hear in a hazmat suit.)

Nina Pham, the other nurse diagnosed with Ebola, was also transferred to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, meaning that it was likely concluded -- as one lawmaker implied during the hearing -- that Texas Health Presbyterian actually couldn't handle Ebola patients, making Frieden's reassurances that any hospital in the country could deal with this disease ring even more hollow.


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