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President Obama Speaks Out on Ebola Response

Aired October 28, 2014 - 15:00   ET


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And so the president really has an opportunity here to sort of get a handle on things, get a handle on sort of this public mind-set that perhaps things are all sort of over the place right now.

And this question of, where is Ron Klain, the Ebola response coordinator, that is a question keeps coming up over and over again. They say he's doing a lot, but we haven't seen it.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: So, to all of the points, you know, that Jim Acosta raised, Gloria, how does the president handle this? How does he address this head on?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: If you look at the polls, about half the American public says we're doing an OK job or even a good job on handling this.

I think we have seen are a lot of mixed signals, though, since this whole crisis has erupted, as Jim enumerated, from the CDC to the question of mandatory quarantines. Lots of Democrats are now talking about travel bans. How does the president feel about that?

What are you going to do about military quarantines coming back vs. civilian quarantines? These are lots of issues that have yet to be sort of delineated clearly for the American public.

I would argue what Ron Klain is trying to do right now -- and I have covered him in a political context. So, I know this, is that he's trying to get his arms around this situation and figure out how to best manage it before going out there and speaking to the American people and to reporters until he has all the answers to the questions.

Right now, I think that's what they're trying to do. And the more specific the president himself can be about what he intends to do about some of these quarantine and travel ban issues, the better off it will be for him.

BALDWIN: Let me stay with you two.

But can you get in my hear? Do we have the doctors on standby?

Let's ask Dr. Murphy a question.

OK, Dr. Murphy, let me just bring you in, because I know that -- I know that you had said and I believe quoting you offhand, something like the issues about this Ebola czar and the left hand not talking to the right when it comes to quarantines and policy, et cetera. I believe you said it was like the theater of the absurd. How do you mean? And what would you like to hear from the president?

DR. ROBERT MURPHY, CENTER FOR GLOBAL HEALTH: Well, what I would like the president to do is to take charge of the situation. We actually -- this is not an unknown.

We actually know how to deal with it. And one way to deal with a potentially lethal disease is to have somebody in charge of the whole public health effort, both on this side of the Atlantic and as well as at the source in Africa.

And we don't see that. And I think that's what's confusing people. And you just mentioned it. Every state now has their own guidelines as to how to treat people coming back from West Africa, including our own citizens who have just volunteered.

BALDWIN: So whose fault is that? Is it really ultimately up to the president? I know the CDC to a degree is handicapped.

Actually, let me pause.

Here he is, the president of the United States.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want to offer a quick update on Ebola and a number of the issues that have been raised.

We know that the best way to protect Americans ultimately is going to stop this outbreak at the source. And I just had the privilege of speaking with some of the men and women who are working to do just that, our disaster assistance response team on the ground in West Africa.

First and foremost, I thank them for their incredible dedication and compassion. These are the folks that from the minute that we saw this Ebola outbreak growing larger than we had seen traditionally, were deployed, were on the ground and were helping to coordinate the countries where the outbreak is happening to make sure that the response was effective.

And it's typical of what America does best. When others are in trouble, when disease or disaster strikes, Americans help. And no other nation is doing as much to make sure that we contain and ultimately eliminate this outbreak than America.

We deployed this DART team to West Africa back in early August. They're now the strategic and operational backbone of America's response. They have increased the number of Ebola treatment units and burial teams. They have expanded the pipeline of medical personnel and equipment and supplies. They have launched an aggressive education campaign in country.

The bottom line is, is that they're doing what it takes to make sure that medical personnel and health care workers from all countries have what they need to get the job done. And the good news is that it's starting to have an impact.

Based on the conversations that I had today with them, they're starting to see some progress in Liberia. And the infrastructure is beginning to get built out. That's thanks to the incredible work and dedication of folks from the United States who are leading the way in helping Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

And it's critical that we maintain that leadership. The truth is that we are going to have to stay vigilant here at home until we stop the epidemic at its source. And for that, we're going to need to make sure that our doctors and our health care professionals here in the United States are properly trained and informed and that they are coordinated, if and when an Ebola case crops up here in the United States.

But what's also critically important is making sure that all the talent, skill, compassion, professionalism, dedication and experience of our folks here can be deployed to help those countries deal with this outbreak at the source.

And that's why yesterday the CDC announced that we are going to have new monitoring and movement guidance that is sensible, based in science, and tailored to the unique circumstances of each health care worker that may be returning from one of these countries after they have provided the kind of help that they need.

In fact, tomorrow, I'm going to have a chance to meet with doctors and public health workers who have already returned from fighting this disease in West Africa or who are about to go, not only to say thank you to them and give them encouragement, but to make sure that we're getting input from them, based on the science, based on the facts, based on experience, about how the battle to deal with Ebola is going and how our policies can support the incredible heroism that they are showing.

So, we don't want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines and dealing with this in an effective way. Our medical teams here are getting better and better prepared and trained for the possibility of an isolated Ebola case here in the United States.

But, in the meantime, we have got to make sure that we continue to provide the support of health workers who are going overseas to deal with the disease where it really has been raging.

It's also important for the American people to remind themselves that only two people so far have contracted Ebola on American soil, the two Dallas nurses who treated a patient who contracted it in West Africa. Today, both of them are disease-free.

I met with one of them, Nina Pham, last week, and she is doing wonderfully. And I just had a chance to get off the phone with Amber Vinson, who is on her way back home, and also, as many of you saw in her press statement today, is doing well also.

Of the seven Americans treated for Ebola so far, all have survived. Right now, the only American still undergoing treatment is Dr. Craig Spencer, who contracted the disease abroad while working to protect others. And we should be saluting his service. And we are focused on getting him the best care possible as well. And our thoughts and prayers are with him.

Meanwhile, the West African nations of Senegal and Nigeria have now been declared Ebola-free. That's in part because of outstanding work led in many cases by Americans, working in coordination with those countries to make sure that we did not see an outbreak there.

So, the point is, is that this disease can be contained. It will be defeated. Progress is possible. But we're going to have to stay vigilant, and we have got to make sure that we're working together. We have to keep leading the global response. America cannot look like it is shying away because other people are watching what we do.

And if we don't have a robust international response in West Africa, then we are actually endangering ourselves here back home. In order to do that, we have got to make sure that those workers who are willing and able and dedicated to go over there in a really tough job, that they're applauded, thanked and supported.

That should be our priority. And we can make sure that when they come back, they are being monitored in a prudent fashion, but we want to make sure that we understand that they are doing God's work over there. And they're doing that to keep us safe.

And I want to make sure that every policy we put in place is supportive of their efforts, because if they are successful, then we're not going to have to work about Ebola here at home.

America in the end is not defined by fear. That's not who we are. America's defined by possibility. And when we see a problem and we see a challenge, then we fix it. We don't just react based on our fears. We react based on facts and judgment and making smart decisions.

That's how we have built this country and sustained this country and protected this country. That's why America has defined progress, because we're not afraid when challenges come up.

Thanks to our military, our dedicated medical and health care professionals, the men and women who I spoke to today in West Africa, that leadership and progress continues. And we're going to keep on making progress. And we're going to solve this particular progress, just like we have solved every other problem.

But it starts with us having the confidence and understanding that, as challenging as this may be, this is something that we will get fixed, in large part because we have got extraordinary Americans with experience, talent, dedication who are willing to put themselves on the front lines to get things done.

I will have more about -- more to say about this tomorrow when I have those workers here. But I just wanted to emphasize how proud I am of the people who are already involved in this effort and how confident I am after speaking to them that, in fact, we're going to get this problem under control.

All right? Thank you.

QUESTION: Are you concerned, sir, that there might be some confusion between the quarantine rules used by the military and used by health care workers and by some states?

OBAMA: Well, the military is in a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients. Second of all, they are not there voluntarily.

It's part of their mission that's been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the commander in chief. So, we don't expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for civilians. They are already, by definition, if they're in the military, under more circumscribed conditions.

When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth to go over there because they have very particular expertise to tackle a very difficult job, we to want make sure that, when they come back, that we are prudent, that we are making sure that they are not at risk themselves or at risk of spreading the disease.

But we don't want to do things that aren't based on science and best practices, because, if we do, then we're just putting another barrier on somebody who's already doing really important work on our behalf. And that's not something I think any of us should want to see happen.

All right? Thank you, guys.

BALDWIN: All right, well, he did take that one question, and away he goes to Marine One for a campaign stop in Wisconsin.

But before he went, the president speaking for at least, you know, about 10 minutes there specifically on Ebola, making a little bit of news. We have talking a lot. And we have finally seen Amber Vinson, that second nurse from Dallas who had been treated at Emory Medical in Atlanta.

He said he had just hopped off the phone with her. That was certainly some news. And he also mentioned this vigilance. He mentioned that we should not be discouraging all these wonderful people from going overseas to volunteer to help, really, ground zero where this Ebola epidemic has existed in West Africa.

But I would love to talk to some of my guests here, "New England Journal of Medicine" editor in chief standing by with me, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen.

And, Dr. Drazen, I would love to bring you in because part of the question, and that was the one question he did take over this confusion over military guidelines vs. federal by CDC recommendations vs. state by state by state. It's sort of like left hand not talking to the right. I would love to hear your opinion on this. Dr. Murphy addressed it before we heard from the president. But how should this be working?

DR. JEFFREY DRAZEN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE": So the CDC has set up guidelines and they reinforced them and revised them yesterday and they made sense.

The military's a different case, because we haven't been on the ground with the military. We don't know where they have been deployed and what they have been doing. While the people who are part of the medical teams, they are usually under supervision. We know exactly what they have been doing. We know the kinds of risks they're exposed to.

The military I think is a separate case. And that should be up to the military to decide what is best for it. Further, as the president pointed out, the members of the military are, in fact, in the military. This is part of their deployment, while volunteers who participate in this action -- and I will point out that Mr. Obama is correct.

We're making progress. The World Health Organization had estimated by this time there would be 15,000 cases of Ebola, and there are fewer than that as far as we can tell. We're beating this back, we're getting source control. It's early in the game. But it looks like we're beginning to get the upper hand and we need to maintain that momentum if we're going to win in the long run.


Dr. Murphy, I have more questions on this in just a moment. Stand by for me.

Gloria Borger, I just wanted to come to you because I think we were making the point earlier as far as what we would hear from the president and, perhaps, what we did not hear, no mention of Ron Klain, the Ebola response coordinator, I think is the proper way of how they addressed it, the Ebola czar, didn't mention him. How did the president do?

BORGER: Look, I think what the president's trying to do is take this day by day. He said today we're going to hear from him again tomorrow.

He's clearly decided that he's going to be -- aside from the CDC on this, that he's going to be speaking directly to the country about it. And I think, look, his message was essentially, don't overreact here. We are getting this under control and his point was, don't punish people who are volunteering to go over there and who show no signs of disease when they come back.

Let's figure out a humane way to deal with all of this. And then, as you point out, he did differentiate between volunteers and those who served in the military. And I'm sure we will hear about this from the Department of Defense some more.

But, you know, I think this is a president who is saying, look, we're getting this under control at the source. I want to remind you that we haven't had as many cases here as we thought we were going to have. The people we have had are doing OK.

You know, he mentioned the two nurses, for example. So, I think what he was trying to do is sort of say to the American public, we're getting ahold of this. We have got a lot more work to do. And, by the way, don't punish the people who are trying to help us out on this.

BALDWIN: Right. Right. We heard that over and over.

And in fact, Jim Acosta, we heard the president mention tomorrow, he will be meeting with doctors who have returned from Africa, not just to thank them, but to get their input.

ACOSTA: That's right.

The president, he hugged that nurse who was released by the NIH.

BALDWIN: Nina Pham.

ACOSTA: That's right. Last Friday. And so the president is trying to make a point here, a visible point here that these health care workers who are dealing with Ebola patients, even in the case of nurse Pham, who contracted Ebola, that they're not to be feared.

And I think to just jump off of what Gloria Borger was saying there is that I think there was a subtle jab at Chris Christie when he said that these health care workers coming back from West Africa should be respected and sort of welcomed back with open arms.

He's drawing a bit of a distinction there between his attitude and the treatment of that nurse up in New Jersey who was confined to a tent for about 72 hours before she was allowed to go to Maine. And so I think the president, as Gloria was saying, is trying to say the public, don't be fearful. The United States is on top of this.

And he also said at one point, look, only two people have contracted this in the United States. They are very much concerned over here, Brooke, about an outbreak of fear and worry in the country, much more, I think, than they are about an outbreak of Ebola.

They think they are on top of it. And as long as they can put this to rest in West Africa, it will take time. They feel like they will defeat it at home as well.

BALDWIN: Jim Acosta for me at the White House and Gloria Borger in Washington, thanks, you two, very, very much.

Doctors, gentlemen, please stay with me. I have a lot more for you, a lot more questions, including some of this additional confusion around Ebola. Critics are blaming the government for that. Why can't all of these health officials get on the same page? Is that possible? I want to delve a little deeper into that with you two, who know this so well. And also, nurse Amber Vinson, we just heard the president say he just

got off the phone with her. She is that second Dallas nurse who was released and hugged by many medical professionals there at Emory. You will hear straight from her how she's feeling. How is she doing today? A big, big day for her. Stay here.


BALDWIN: Just before the president spoke there from the South Lawn of the White House, we had just heard from Amber Vinson, the Dallas nurse who is now free of the Ebola virus before walking out of Emory University Hospital today in Atlanta. She said this.


AMBER VINSON, EBOLA SURVIVOR: I want to sincerely thank the professionals who have contributed to my care here at Emory Healthcare and at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

As a nurse and now as someone who has experienced what it's like to be cared for through a life-threatening illness, I'm so appreciative and grateful for your exceptional skill, warmth and care.


BALDWIN: Vinson was one of those two nurses infected with Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas. That other nurse, Nina Pham, was released from a Maryland hospital, from NIH on Friday. Both nurses contracted Ebola treating this man, Thomas Eric Duncan, who had come over from Liberia who got sick and ultimately died from the disease.

And from diagnosis back on October 15 to this smiling -- there it is -- healthy face, 14 days later, Emory, her doctor here had a couple of theories on her relatively quick recovery.


DR. BRUCE RIBNER, DIRECTOR, EMORY UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: We have a couple of hypotheses. Number one, they are two of the youngest patients who have been treated in developed countries for Ebola virus disease.

And, again, we know from a lot of data coming out of Africa that younger patients do much better than patients who are older. The other hypothesis we have is, again, that she was wearing personal protective equipment during the care of her patient in Dallas.

And, therefore, it is quite likely that the amount of virus she was exposed to was substantially less than what we see in patients who get infected in less developed countries. And we also know that the higher the viral load that you get infected with, the more severe your disease is likely to be.


BALDWIN: Let me bring him back in. We're thrilled to have "The New England Journal of Medicine" editor in chief, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen.

Doc, welcome back and thanks for hanging around with me.

Let me just begin with what we just heard from, you know, Emory, the fact, and I'm curious if you felt the same way as far as fairly quick recovery, diagnosis and some 14 days later, this healthy smiling face we saw today.

DRAZEN: Yes, it's wonderful. It shows that if you identify the disease early and appropriate care that patients can survive. And, as you pointed out, Amber is relatively young, and that was a factor in her favor. I'm really glad to see she's out of the hospital and feeling well.

BALDWIN: You know, in reading about some of the comments you had made in understanding Ebola, and obviously she was green-lit to leave the hospital, because her blood no longer is Ebola-free. But you had studied this German man. And even though he was Ebola-free, there was no Ebola in the blood, there was Ebola in his -- it was detectable in his sweat. Can you just explain that to me with any of the individuals that have been sick?

DRAZEN: So, this is a case that we reported.

I can't say I studied him. He was a -- is a person in Germany who had been working in West Africa, became infected and was evacuated to a German hospital where, like the hospitals we have in the U.S., they were well prepared for treating a patient with Ebola, and he became very sick during this time.

He had severe illness and had respiratory and kidney failure. But with good backup care, he survived. And there's a couple very important lessons we learned from this patient. One is that he received no experimental treatment. It was his immune system that conquered the virus.

And when he was in the hospital, in their care, they measured the amount of virus in his blood every day. And it was very high to begin with. But as his immune system kicked in on about the second week of the illness, his antibody level went up. And at the same time, the level of the virus in his blood fell dramatically, down to undetectable levels.

But it persisted in a number of sites, including sweat on his skin. And they kept him in the hospital under close watch to see what would happen. And it turned out that they couldn't get the virus to grow from that material. They could only bring it up by this very sensitive molecular test.

And the current thinking about this is, remembering it's only an anecdote, is that this represented the DNA from a dead virus that they were able to bring up, rather than a live, infected virion. He left the hospital and is doing well.

BALDWIN: It's incredible. DRAZEN: This example taught us that you can recover from this

illness, but still have some signs of transmissibility. But we believe that it's probably not actually a contagious illness.

BALDWIN: It's incredible. It's incredible. And hearing the president, I think he even said it twice. It's so important to treat this disease at the source. And so I'm wondering what you know since you are in the know. What's the latest on the vaccine?

DRAZEN: So there are a number of vaccines that are in trial. There were some trials that were started at the end of September and the beginning of October in normal volunteers.

And these are vaccines that were developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in concert with GlaxoSmithKline. And one of the vaccines is for the virus that's circulating in West Africa and the other is for that virus plus the virus that's been found in Central Africa about a few thousand miles away.

And in these studies, normal volunteers were injected. And the first thing the investigators looked for were reactions to the vaccine in terms of fever or other signs. We haven't heard much about that. So we're guessing, still guessing, that there wasn't a lot.

But at six weeks is when the data comes out on their immune response to the vaccine. And what we're all hoping -- we have our fingers crossed here.

BALDWIN: Fingers and toes crossed.

DRAZEN: That the vaccine will have a big immune response, both what we call a humoral and cellular response. And even though we don't know for sure that that will kill the virus, the data suggests that it will. This is different from HIV.

This is more like chicken pox. This appears to be an illness where you develop an immune response to it and you can conquer the illness. I want to be clear is what we don't know is whether it will be like chicken pox that once you get it, you can't get it again. We have to work that out.

But we do know that the patients who have survived have been ones where there's been an immune response. And the German patient was very informative because he got no other treatment, no ZMapp or other special antivirals. It was his immune system on its own that did the work.

BALDWIN: It is incredible--

DRAZEN: That's really good news.

BALDWIN: -- the science of all of this.

Let's stay in touch. We'd love to have you back to see what happens in a matter of weeks with our fingers and everything crossed. Dr. Jeffrey Drazen-- DRAZEN: Right. Let's keep the--

BALDWIN: -- editor-in-chief of "The New England Journal of Medicine."


BALDWIN: Yes, keeping them, keeping them crossed right here. Thank you so much, sir, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Truly, truly appreciate you joining me.