Ban flights from Ebola-stricken nations

Photo by Daniel Duchon

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa presents an urgent public health threat to America. The loss of life and the growing epidemic are heartbreaking and tragic. And we need serious leadership in the United States to protect our citizens today.

To date, roughly 8,000 people have contracted Ebola in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that under worst-case-scenario conditions, the number of Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million by January. Of those, over 50 percent would likely lose their lives.

We need to do everything we can to contain this outbreak, to help the people who are suffering in Africa and to prevent this epidemic from spreading. But our first priority must be to protect the health and safety of American citizens. The Constitution sets forth the federal government’s responsibility to “provide for the common defense.” That should be the president’s focus.

Already, one Liberian citizen, Thomas Eric Duncan, was able to fly on a commercial flight to Texas, arriving at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport infected with Ebola. Duncan lost his life, but not before transmitting the disease to a Dallas nurse, Nina Pham, who bravely put her life in jeopardy caring for him in his final days. Officials announced on Wednesday that another health care worker had been diagnosed with the virus. Our prayers are with that worker, Pham and Duncan’s grieving family.

We all very much hope the virus will not spread any further in Texas. But hope is not a strategy. Given the gravity of the threat, common sense dictates that it’s time to ban flights from the countries afflicted by Ebola.

The federal government has implemented screenings at five major American airports for passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Notably, the screenings don’t include other airports like DFW, where Duncan arrived.

This is not enough. The screenings are not effective if the patient is not symptomatic, and the Ebola virus has an incubation period of up to 21 days. During that time, an Ebola carrier presents no symptoms and is not contagious. Anyone traveling during those 21 days will likely walk right through the screening. 

Banning flights from the afflicted countries is a prudent, common-sense step until the epidemic is brought under control. 

The Obama administration resists doing so, telling us that the U.S. health care system is much more advanced than Africa’s and is thus better able to contain an outbreak. That’s true, but an outbreak here could nonetheless be catastrophic. 

We know that even with high-quality American health care, Duncan transmitted the virus to at least two workers. Despite the CDC protocols, the biohazard suits, nitrile gloves and goggles, the virus was still passed to Pham and her co-worker, although we don’t yet know how. But we do know simple human error, a tiny flaw in equipment or the potential of a mutating virus can render even the most cautious protocols ineffective.

I recently visited with the leadership of one of Texas’s largest health care systems about their precautions to counter Ebola. I asked how many Ebola patients they could reasonably handle with these protocols. “Six or so,” they responded. What if, God forbid, we saw 8,000, as in West Africa? They had no answer.

We shouldn’t risk finding out what that answer might be.

The Obama administration’s second major argument against a flight ban is that it might prevent doctors from going to Africa and treating the sick. But no one is talking about banning flights into West Africa, or keeping American citizens who have been properly quarantined from returning to the country.

The question is simply whether we should continue to allow non-U.S. citizens to fly in commercial airliners out of West Africa, connect in Europe and arrive in the United States. We should not. Doing so imposes an intolerable risk, and the federal government should immediately suspend all travel visas from affected countries until the outbreak is contained.

To support medical relief efforts, we can fly health care personnel into Africa using military C-130 aircraft, with full safety precautions, rather than relying on commercial airliners.

Finally, we must also secure our borders and better protect our troops.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly recently raised concerns about the potential spread of Ebola into Central and South America. Should the disease spread to Haiti or Central America, Kelly said, people in those nations “will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.”

Last week, I visited with leadership at Fort Hood, where hundreds of troops are anxiously preparing to deploy to fight Ebola. Hundreds of troops at Fort Bliss are being sent, too. It’s troubling that we’re sending so many soldiers into harm’s way when it’s still not clear what military objective they’re expected to accomplish. We should all agree, however, that it’s absolutely critical we do everything possible to protect our servicemen and women and prevent them from potentially contracting this terrible virus.

We should have the utmost confidence that our military, doctors, nurses and health care workers will do everything they can to keep Americans safe from Ebola, risking their lives if necessary. But prevention is the best strategy, and prudence dictates that we should ban commercial flights until this terrible outbreak is contained.

Ted Cruz

U.S. senator, R-Texas