WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama authorized calling up military reservists for the U.S. fight against Ebola in West Africa on Thursday, as lawmakers criticized his administration’s efforts to contain the disease at home.
Obama’s move came after lawmakers held a congressional hearing to probe the federal response to the virus. Amid criticism of perceived missteps by the administration, many House of Representatives members joined calls for a ban on travel from the hardest-hit West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Obama signed the executive order authorizing the use of U.S. military reservists to support humanitarian aid efforts in those countries, highlighting the need to launch an all-out attack against the disease. The order did not specify how many personnel would be involved.
A congressional hearing on Thursday came as concerns about the virus in the United States intensified after two Texas nurses who cared for Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan contracted the virus.
After the hearing, the White House said Obama met with top administration officials handling the government’s response to Ebola.
News that one of the nurses, Amber Vinson, traveled aboard a commercial airliner while running a slight fever ratcheted up public health concerns on Wednesday, prompting several schools in Ohio and Texas to close because people with ties to the schools shared the flight with Vinson.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it would take over the care of the first Texas nurse diagnosed with Ebola, Nina Pham, who contracted the virus while caring for Duncan, who later died.
Lawmakers focused questions and pointed criticism at the hearing on Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The administration did not act fast enough in responding in Texas,” Democratic Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa told the hearing. “We need to look at all the options available to keep our families safe and move quickly and responsibly to make any necessary changes at airports.”
Several Republicans said flights from West Africa, where the virus is widespread, should be stopped.
Ebola has killed nearly 4,500 people in West Africa, predominantly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, since March. On Thursday, Sierra Leone’s government said the virus had spread to the last healthy district in the country, killing at least two people.
The virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person showing symptoms of Ebola.
Frieden argued, as he has before, that closing U.S. borders would not work and would leave the country less able to track people with Ebola entering. Moreover, cutting flights to Africa would hit the U.S. ability to stop the virus at its source, he said.
His comments came before it was announced that Obama had sent a letter to leaders of Congress saying an unspecified number of reservists would be used to help active-duty personnel in support of the U.S. Ebola mission in West Africa. The vast majority of engineers, transport units, civil affairs personnel, military police and medical units are in the reserves or National Guard.
Frieden told the hearing, “I will tell you, as director of the CDC, one of the things I fear about Ebola is that it could spread more widely in Africa. If that were to happen, it could become a threat to our health system and the healthcare we give for a long time to come.”
Frieden said he has spoken to the White House about the issue of dealing with people traveling with Ebola. Asked if the White House had ruled out a travel ban, the CDC chief did not answer directly, saying, “I can’t speak for the White House.”
However, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta told reporters separately that the government was assessing whether to issue a travel ban “on a day-to-day basis.”
Jamaica, meanwhile, imposed an immediate travel ban on Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the Caribbean island’s government announced. Jamaica said the ban would apply to people traveling directly or indirectly, from or through those countries.
The South American country of Guyana said it had denied entry to citizens of those countries, as well as Nigeria, for the past five weeks.
Pham, 26, was to be transferred late on Thursday from Dallas to an isolation unit at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland outside Washington for treatment, the agency’s director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing.
“We will be supplying her with state-of-the-art care in our high-level containment facilities,” said Fauci.
Dr. Daniel Varga, chief clinical officer and senior vice president of Texas Health Resources, which owns the hospital, told the hearing that mistakes were made in diagnosing Duncan and in giving inaccurate information to the public, and said he was “deeply sorry.”
He also said there had been no Ebola training for staff before Duncan was admitted.
“It would be an understatement to say that the response to the first U.S.-based patient with Ebola has been mismanaged, causing risk to scores of additional people,” said Representative Diana DeGette, the top Democrat on the subcommittee holding Thursday’s hearing.
At least two lawmakers have called for Frieden’s resignation. Others, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, have joined in urging travel restrictions on the West African countries hardest hit by Ebola. The disease appeared in the United States last month.
Vinson was transferred to Emory University Hospital for treatment on Wednesday night.
In Ohio, where Vinson had visited family members, two schools in the Cleveland suburb of Solon were closed on Thursday because an employee may have traveled on the same plane as Vinson, though on a different flight.
Ohio’s health department said the CDC was sending staff to help coordinate efforts to contain the spread of Ebola.
Frontier Airlines said it had placed six crew members on paid leave for 21 days “out of an abundance of caution.”
Back in Texas, the Belton school district in central Texas said three schools were closed on Thursday because two students were on the same flight as the nurse.
Frieden has said it was unlikely passengers who flew with Vinson were infected because the nurse had not vomited or bled on the flight, but he said she should not have boarded the plane.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Will Dunham, Mohammad Zargham, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and David Alexander in Washington; Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis