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Congressman: More Ebola cases “only a plane flight away from our shores”

The Ebola virus death toll has surpassed 4,000, including one in Dallas, and congressional leaders demanded Friday for more to be done to make sure the deadly disease doesn’t spread in America.

They asked health officials for answers to questions they are hearing, such as why flights aren’t being stopped to and from West African countries and what is being done to protect U.S. troops dispatched to West Africa to help.

“The crisis is unfolding at an alarming pace,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said during a specially-called congressional hearing at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. “Thousands have died in Africa and thousands more have been infected.

“Now the virus has begun to spread to other parts of the world and the American people are rightfully concerned,” said McCaul, who heads the committee. “They are concerned because the Ebola virus is an unseen threat and it is only a plane flight away from our shores.”

The goal of the meeting was to examine the coordinated federal, state and local response in the wake of the one Ebola case in Texas.

Less than two weeks ago, Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia arrived in Dallas to visit his girlfriend and family and became the one person diagnosed with the disease in the United States.

He showed up at Texas health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas with fever and pain, and was sent home with antibiotics, but returned in an ambulance a few days later and was formally diagnosed with Ebola. He was hospitalized, put in isolation and given a new experimental antiviral drug before he died on Wednesday.

“Mr. Duncan puts a real face on the ... epidemic,” said Toby Merlin, who heads the preparedness and emerging infections division at the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease. “Ebola ... is ferocious and continues to spread.”

That’s exactly why more needs to be done to treat those impacted by the disease where they are and prevent it from coming to the United States again.

“We have got to stop this disease and not let it be imported to our country,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville.

Working together

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins updated the committee on the Dallas Ebola case, saying that everyone involved used dignity and compassion.

“The death of Eric Duncan is the loss of a father, a fiance, a son and a person who was loved by an extended family,” he said.

As of Friday, the people who were potentially exposed to Ebola through Duncan remained symptom free, he said.

Jenkins stressed that all levels of government have a job to do regarding Ebola right now -- and they need to keep their focus.

“We are one team, one fight and we are committed to working together,” Jenkins said. “There is no other way to stop Ebola.

“There is a lot of fear out there and I understand why,” he said. “There is a zero percent chance of contracting Ebola without coming into contact with the bodily fluids” of someone infected with the disease.

More than a dozen House members -- including local U.S. Reps. Burgess, Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth – attended Friday's hearing and several asked health officials the same questions they have been hearing from constituents back home.

At the top of their list was wanting to know why flights aren’t being banned from West Africa to the United States.

Merlin said he believes the Ebola outbreak is at a point where it can be contained. But shutting down air service in and out of West Africa could make the situation worse.

If air travel is shut down, Merlin said he fears the “disease will grow exponentially,” potentially reaching 1 million cases before the end of the year.

If it grows, and air travel – which is needed to bring supplies and help into the area – is stopped, he believes the disease will spill into other countries.

“We want to stop it now,” he said. “We know how to do it. We need to get the resources there to do it and we don’t want to do things to impede that.

“We are very much afraid interruption in travel ... will cause a delay,” he said. “By delaying stopping the epidemic, you create a much larger epidemic that is impossible to control.”

U.S. Rep. Curtis Clawson, R-Florida, also asked how U.S. troops recently sent to Liberia to try to help with the outbreak can be kept safe.

“Our military forces will not be on a treatment mission ... but doing logistical work,” Merlin said. “We will do everything possible to prevent people who are trying to help from getting infected.

Airport monitoring

New safety measures go into effect this weekend to make sure ill travelers from West Africa don’t make it on planes to other countries.

Officials will begin checking temperatures of travelers leaving West Africa as part of screening procedures at JFK International Airport in New York that also will soon be used at Washington Dulles and international airports in Atlanta, Chicago and Newark.

These airports were chosen, officials said, because they receive most of the travelers from the West African nations where the Ebola outbreak is. But several Texas congressional members asked Friday that those procedures be expanded to DFW and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

“We have concerns that the current decision to screen only at five airports may not adequately protect Americans and others traveling to America from the Ebola virus,” according to a letter U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and McCaul sent to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

They also pointed out that more than 15 million international travelers flew through DFW and Houston’s airport last year.

In addition to having their temperatures taken, travelers at impacted airports also will be observed for any signs of illness and they will be asked general questions about their health and whether they had any possible exposure to the disease.

Other efforts

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry put together a 17-member task force to make sure the state is ready to deal with infectious diseases such as Ebola.

“This task force will develop a comprehensive, long-term plan to ensure Texas deals effectively with any potential outbreak ... and will cover all phases of preparedness and response,” he said.

Perry also asked the federal government to begin “enhanced screening procedures” at all points of entry, which would include checking temperatures and staffing quarantine stations.

Dr. Brett Giroir, the head of Texas A&M Health Science Center, will lead the task force, which includes Arlington’s Michael Williams, who heads the Texas Education Agency.

For now, McCaul said everyone must work together in the face of this deadly disease.

“Public health and medical personnel must remain vigilant, ensure all hospital personnel are informed, follow protocols to identify this virus, and take appropriate quarantine measures,” he said. “We must reinforce the importance of taking travel histories and sharing that information with all relevant personnel.

“We are in the same boat,” he said. “And we need to work hard to make sure that our nation is protected from this threat.”

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