America has never been defined by fear. We are defined by courage and passion and hope and selflessness and sacrifice and a willingness to take on challenges when others can’t and others will not, and ordinary Americans who risk their own safety to help those in need, and who inspire, thereby, the example of others — all in the constant pursuit of building a better world not just for ourselves but for people in every corner of the Earth.
— President Obama, October 29, 2014
President Barack Obama repeated his message Wednesday afternoon that America needs to support those serving our country as aid workers in the Ebola-stricken region of Africa, saying “the world owes them a debt of gratitude” for their heroic service.
Pushing to confront Ebola at its West African source, the President said the United States was not immune to the virus but cautioned against discouraging American health workers by imposing restrictive measures that confine them upon their return from the afflicted region.
“The best way to protect Americans from Ebola is to stop the outbreak at its source,” Obama said in an East Room ceremony honoring doctors and nurses who have been or are going to West Africa. “If we are not dealing with this problem there, it will come here.”
Sharing the podium with him were about a dozen health workers who had either just returned from or were preparing to go to West Africa, where nearly 14,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus. The President lauded his guests for their “sense of duty” and for “serving a cause greater than themselves,” saying they “represent citizenship, patriotism, and public service at its best.”
“All of them have signed up to leave their homes and their loved ones and head straight into the heart of the Ebola epidemic,” Obama said. “We need to call them what they are, which is American heroes. They deserve our gratitude and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
While the President stopped short of naming the state officials who want to confine or quarantine heath workers, he decried “policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers … it makes me a little frustrated.”
“I know that people are scared,” Obama said. “But it’s critical we remain focused on the facts and the science.” Ebola is only transmissible through direct exposure to contaminated bodily fluids such as blood, vomit, urine, or feces. People who contract the virus aren’t contagious until they start showing symptoms, which can occur anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after infection.
Nevertheless, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other governors around the country have called for mandatory quarantines on anyone returning from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone, the three countries where the virus is raging. Those policies go beyond federal guidelines and are not supported by scientific evidence, the President said, urging Americans not to react based on “hysteria” and “misinformation,” but rather with “commonsense, skill, and courage.”
Public health experts have also condemned such restrictions, warning that they could prevent aid workers from going to the Ebola-stricken countries to help, which could ultimately raise the public health threat back at home. The president of the World Bank has said the region needs at least 5,000 more such workers.
On Friday, New Jersey confined nurse Kaci Hickox, who had just returned from a Doctors Without Borders mission in Sierra Leone, to a hospital tent for three days. Hickox was released after she threatened to sue, and both New Jersey and New York announced that other returning health care workers would be allowed to serve out their quarantines in their own homes.
President Obama, for his part, said on Wednesday in a thinly veiled reference to the quarantines, “If we’re discouraging our health care workers who are prepared to make these sacrifices from traveling to these places in need, then we’re not doing our job in terms of looking after our own health and safety.”
It has been two weeks since the second and last confirmed instance of anyone catching Ebola in America. The two nurses who were infected after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who contracted the virus after traveling to Texas last month, have both made full recoveries. Obama hugged one of the nurses, Nina Pham, at the White House last week.