WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama appointed a former White House adviser as U.S. Ebola “czar” on Friday as the global death toll from the disease that has ravaged three West African countries rose to more than 4,500.
Amid growing concerns about the spread of the virus in the United States, authorities said a Texas health worker who is not ill but who may have had contact with specimens from an Ebola patient was quarantined on a cruise ship that departed last Sunday from the port of Galveston, Texas.
The Carnival Magic, operated by Carnival Corp unit Carnival Cruise Lines, skipped a planned stop in Cozumel, Mexico, on Friday because of delays getting permission to dock from Mexican authorities, the cruise line said, adding that this was to enable the ship to return to Galveston on time on Sunday.
A Mexican port authority official said the ship was denied clearance to avoid any possible risk from Ebola.
“It is the first time that this has happened, and it was decided the ship should not dock as a preventative measure against Ebola,” Erce Barron, port authority director in Quintana Roo, told Reuters.
Obama, facing criticism from some lawmakers over his administration’s handling of efforts to contain the virus, appointed Ron Klain, a lawyer who previously served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, to oversee the U.S. response to the virus.
Klain’s appointment and the cruise ship incident highlighted anxiety over the threat from Ebola, even though there have been just three cases diagnosed in the country, all in Dallas. They were a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed in the United States, and two nurses who were on the team of health workers caring for him up to his death last week.
The worst-hit countries have been Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where Ebola has taken 4,546 lives since the outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever began there in March, according to a report on Friday from the World Health Organization.
That marked a sharp increase from late July, when fewer than 730 people had died from the disease in West Africa. The virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person.
The toll on the worst-hit countries has gone beyond the illness, because of disruptions to farming and marketing. The World Food Program said food prices in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had risen by an average of 24 percent, forcing some families to cut back to just one meal a day.
QUICK CRITICISM OF KLAIN
By appointing a “czar,” Obama sought to convey leadership on Ebola. Klain, the president of Case Holdings and general counsel at Revolution LLC, a technology-oriented venture capital firm based in Washington, has been asked to coordinate the entire U.S. government response to Ebola, reporting directly to homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser.
Klain is seen as a political operative in Washington, a part of his biography that did not sit well with some Republican critics.
“Leave it to President Obama to put a liberal political activist in charge of the administration’s Ebola response,” Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana medical doctor, said in a statement. “His so-called Ebola Czar will be someone with no medical background.”
Supporters of Klain said his ability to coordinate among many different agencies and interest groups trumped his lack of medical experience.
The health worker from the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on the cruise ship did not have direct contact with the now-deceased Liberian patient, Duncan, but could have processed his bodily fluids. The worker was not ill, the U.S. State Department said.
Carnival said Friday it had been notified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a passenger on the Carnival Magic was a lab supervisor at the hospital, deemed to be “very low risk.”
“The Texas healthcare worker on board continues to show no symptoms of illness and poses no risk to the guests or crew on board. The individual remains in voluntary isolation,” Carnival said in a statement later on Friday.
The State Department said the worker may have processed samples from Duncan 19 days ago. The maximum incubation window for the disease is 21 days, according to the CDC. The worker and a companion voluntarily isolated themselves in their cabin.
SCARES REACH THE PENTAGON
Illustrating the degree of public worry in the United States, the Pentagon confirmed an Ebola scare on Friday in one of its parking lots when a women who recently traveled to Africa vomited after getting off a bus headed to a high-level Marine Corps ceremony.
Klain was appointed the day after U.S. lawmakers held a congressional hearing on the administration’s handling of Ebola, with some calling for a ban on travel from West Africa, as other politicians have in recent weeks
The White House said on Friday that Obama was willing to “keep an open mind” about imposing a travel ban, but this measure was not currently being considered.
On Thursday, Obama authorized calling up military reservists for the U.S. fight against Ebola in West Africa.
In a sign the disease can be beaten, the World Health Organization said on Friday that the West African country of Senegal was now Ebola-free, although the country was still vulnerable to further cases.
The CDC has said it is expanding its search for people who may have been exposed to Amber Vinson – one of the nurses who treated the Ebola patient in Texas – to include passengers on a flight she made to Cleveland, Ohio in addition to those on her Monday return trip to Texas. Vinson went to Ohio over the weekend on Frontier Airlines while running a slight fever.
In Texas, Governor Rick Perry said health officials were actively monitoring eight air travelers who had close contact with Vinson.
Amber Vinson’s uncle, Lawrence Vinson, told CNN that no travel restrictions were imposed on the nurses who treated Duncan and that his niece did not believe she was putting anyone in danger by boarding the plane to Ohio.
The first nurse to contract the disease in the United States, Nina Pham, was in fair and stable condition, U.S. health officials said on Friday.
Consumer data released on Friday suggested that the appearance of Ebola on U.S. soil has not prompted Americans to rein in spending. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment unexpectedly rose in early October to its highest level since July 2007.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Mohammad Zargham, Frances Kerry and Jeff Mason in Washington, Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans, Curtis Skinner in San Francisco, Simon Gardner and Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City.