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Ebola Seems To Stay Two Steps Ahead Of Government Response

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The news that a second Dallas health worker has contracted Ebola prompted President Obama to scrap a planned political trip today. Instead, he spent the afternoon huddled with senior advisers talking about how the government should respond. The administration says it's likely there will be more cases of Ebola in the U.S., and President Obama ordered federal health officials to be more aggressive in supervising how those patients are cared for.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think what we've all learned over the last several weeks is that folks here in this country and a lot of non-specialized hospitals and clinics don't have that much experience dealing with these issues. And so we're going to have to push out this information as aggressively as possible, and that's the instructions that I provided to my team.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And Scott, as we've heard heard, it's been more than two weeks since Thomas Duncan showed up at a Dallas hospital with Ebola. And as we heard from Wade, the government still seems to be playing a game of catch-up. I mean, what's the administration saying about all this?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, administration officials have repeatedly assured Americans that they were prepared for Ebola. Less than two weeks ago here at the White House, they insisted they knew how to stop this virus in its tracks. But so far, the virus appears to be outrunning the government. We heard from Wade about the series of missteps in Dallas, and at every turn, the federal government has said it's taking steps to improve its response, but its credibility is beginning to suffer a bit.

Today when the head of the CDC was pressed on how he'll keep people who have been exposed to Ebola from flying on commercial jets, for example, he said only that his agency will work with state and local officials to do that. That hasn't worked out very well so far.

One thing the president ordered today is that the CDC send its own SWAT teams of Ebola experts as quickly as possible to any hospital in the country where an Ebola patient shows up.

CORNISH: And earlier today, the president spoke with several European leaders as well as the prime minister of Japan about the international effort to fight the Ebola epidemic. What did he have to say about that meeting?

HORSLEY: Well, here again, the U.S. and others are playing catch-up. The president has ordered thousands of military troops to West Africa to help in building isolation centers, but those have been slow to take shape, and this is a foot race against a virus that's multiplying at a frightening rate. The World Health Organization warns that unless there's a stronger international response in West Africa, by early December we could be looking at 10,000 new Ebola infections every week.

So Obama told his counterparts from Europe and Japan they need to mobilize more money and more people to bend the epidemic curve. He says that's the best way to prevent the spread of Ebola here at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: The investment we made in helping Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea deal with this problem is an investment in our own public health.

CORNISH: You know, Scott, this is a serious disease. Obviously the top priority is treating those who are sick and preventing the spread of it, but over the last couple of days, I've definitely sensed a political dimension to the story as well.

HORSLEY: Well, certainly, and, you know, there's going to be a congressional hearing on the government's response tomorrow. At a time like this, Americans are understandably nervous. They're looking for answers, and they're looking to their government for both reassurance and practical support. That could be advice on how to suit up in the emergency room. It might be government research on vaccine. Maybe at the outside it's even quarantines to keep people from spreading this disease.

So, you know, to the extent that the government performs well, that can sort of underscore the Democratic argument that government can be a force for good in our lives and deserves the public's support. But if the government stumbles, it rekindles questions about the competence of this administration and the government in general. And that, of course, has the potential to help Republicans. I think it's too soon to say at this stage how this plays out, but certainly politics is, as always, in the background here.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley speaking to us from the White House. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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