ATLANTA — The second of two American nurses who became infected with Ebola while treating a Liberian man who died of the disease in Texas was released from an Atlanta hospital on Tuesday having been declared free of the virus.
“I’m so grateful to be well,” a smiling Amber Vinson, 29, told reporters at Emory University Hospital before hugging the doctors and nurses who treated her since her Oct. 15 arrival.
“While this is a day for celebration and gratitude, I ask that we not lose focus on the thousands of families who continue to labor under the burden of this disease in West Africa,” added Vinson, looking fit in a gray suit and pink blouse.
The infections of the nurses in a Dallas hospital at the beginning of October illustrated the initial lack of preparedness in the United States public health system to safely deal with Ebola, which has killed about 5,000 people in three impoverished West African countries and raised fears of a wider outbreak.
The other nurse who worked at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Nina Pham, 26, was declared virus-free last Friday, left the Maryland hospital where she had been treated and met with President Barack Obama.
Vinson’s case caused wider alarm when it was revealed that she had flown from Texas to Ohio and back on commercial planes. Ohio state health officials are still monitoring 163 people in case they show symptoms of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever that can only be transmitted through the bodily fluids of an infected person and is not airborne.
Emory hospital declared Vinson virus-free last Friday but she spent four more days in the facility before being discharged.
“After a rigorous course of treatment and thorough testing, we have determined that Miss Vinson has recovered from her infection with Ebola virus and that she can return to her family, to the community and to her life without any concerns about transmitting this virus to any other individuals,” Emory University Hospital’s Dr. Bruce Ribner told reporters.
“We all recognize that there is a lot of anxiety, and that is understandable. But the American healthcare system has been successfully able to treat patients with the Ebola virus.”
Vinson is the fourth patient successfully treated for Ebola at Emory’s hospital. Vinson and Pham treated Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who had traveled to Texas in late September. He was the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States and he died on Oct. 8.
President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that health workers volunteering to help treat Ebola patients in West Africa should be applauded and he warned that government quarantine policies should not discourage their work needed to help contain the disease.
Obama spoke for the first time since governors in New York and New Jersey ordered the quarantining of health workers returning from West Africa, rules that goes beyond federal guidelines.
He said U.S. officials need to be guided by science rather than fears.
The White House is under pressure to explain why U.S. military personnel returning from West Africa are facing 21-day quarantines while the protocols for civilian medical personnel returning from the region will vary, depending on their risk. The returning troops are being placed in isolation at a base in Italy.
Earnest told reporters it will be more efficient to monitor the health of thousands of military personnel returning from the region if they are quarantined.
The lone patient now being treated for Ebola in the United States is a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, who was diagnosed last Thursday. He had worked with Doctors Without Borders treating Ebola patients in Guinea. Also in New York, health officials said a 5-year-old boy from Guinea who tested negative for Ebola turned out to have a fever because of a respiratory infection.
States including New York and New Jersey have imposed their own safeguards including mandatory quarantines for doctors and nurses returning from the three countries at the center of the epidemic, saying federal policies do not adequately protect the public. Some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have criticized the response by Obama’s administration as inept.
Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, defended his state’s Ebola policy on Tuesday, saying it is not “draconian.”
“We’re trying to be careful here. This is common sense,” Christie said. “Our policy hasn’t changed and our policy will not change.”
Weighing in on the debate, Emory’s Ribner said states must do “a very delicate balancing act” as they decide whether to quarantine returning U.S. doctors and nurses who have been fighting Ebola in the West Africa hot zone but “we must not let fear get in the way.”
Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Doina Chiacu, Chris Helgren and Roberta Rampton.