By David Morgan and Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's response to Ebola ran into fresh criticism from Republicans in Congress on Friday, as the emergence of a fourth U.S. case in New York City heightened public anxiety about the potential spread of the virus.
Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, blasted what he described as a "bumbling" administration response characterized by missteps and ill-considered procedures to protect U.S. healthcare workers at home and troops in West Africa.
"It would be a major mistake to underestimate what Ebola could do to populations around the world, and any further fumbles, bumbles or missteps ... can no longer be tolerated," Issa told hearing that required lawmakers to return to Washington from the campaign trail.
The federal Ebola response has emerged as an issue in congressional election campaigns across the country, less than two weeks before a Nov. 4 ballot that will give Republicans an opportunity to take control of the Senate from Democrats.
Ebola's first appearance on U.S. soil last month with the arrival of Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan led to a series of public health missteps, including the spread of infection to two Dallas nurses.
The unrelated fourth U.S. case was identified on Thursday in New York City, where a doctor who treated Ebola cases in Guinea in West Africa tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized in isolation. Three others who had contact with him were quarantined for observation.
Issa called the news "particularly distressing."
Republicans have criticized the Obama administration’s response, seizing an opportunity to tie their opponents to an unpopular president and fear of the disease. Meanwhile, vulnerable Democrats have increasingly signaled their openness to restrictions on travel from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Ebola has killed at least 4,877 people, mostly in those three countries.
To date, Republicans have led public appeals for the White House to impose a travel ban on the West African hot zone. But Obama has resisted a travel ban on advice from public health officials who say Ebola poses no major health threat in the United States and that a ban could prompt travelers from West Africa's hot zone to hide their origin, making infections much harder to track.
Instead, the administration has rolled out a new safety protocol to protect U.S. healthcare workers who care for Ebola patients, and has beefed up screening and monitoring procedures.
"Simply having those thermal scans and interviews at the five airport hubs isn't going to satisfy people who are concerned about minimizing the risk," said Stephen Morrison of the Centers for Strategic and International Studies.
'SUPPOSED TO BE THE EXPERT'
Some lawmakers have sought to restrain their attacks on the administration in official comments. "We stand ready to work with the administration to finally get ahead of this situation. No one wants an ‘I told you so moment'," Republican Representative Fred Upton of Michigan said in a statement released by his office.
Friday's mostly cordial proceedings took a turn when Issa accused Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of giving "false information" about the dangers of infection and the safety of CDC treatment protocols that failed to protect two Dallas nurses from infection.
"We have the head of the CDC, who's supposed to be the expert, and he's made statements that simply aren't true," Issa said. "We were relying on protocols that have proven not to be correct."
Frieden was not among the hearing's four government witnesses, and CDC officials were not immediately available for comment.
Other Republicans called for revising Pentagon procedures to protect thousands of U.S. troops destined for West Africa to help fight Ebola. The guidelines call for monitoring personnel for symptoms over a 10-day period - rather than the virus's maximum 21-day incubation period - before they leave the region.
“I am highly skeptical," said Representative Michael Turner of Ohio. Three people in Ohio were under quarantine and 163 others were being monitored, after Dallas nurse Amber Vinson took a commercial flight from Cleveland to Texas while running a slight fever.
"The American public is concerned that people who are exposed are having too much contact with the American public and raising the risk to United States citizens,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Jonathan Oatis)