CDC file photo

HHS Secretary Defies Trump on Ebola Travel Ban

Trump advocated shutting infected Americans out of the country during the 2014 outbreak. But Tom Price praised Obama’s response and said the U.S. has a moral responsibility to care for its health volunteers abroad.

At the height of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, days before the World Health Organization declared it an international public health emergency, Donald Trump tweeted: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!”

“This framework sees infected persons as an enemy to be contained and avoided rather than as people who need treatment,” the global health researcher Jeremy Youde wrote in response. 

That is a worrying framework, especially considering that Trump will almost certainly face another epidemic during his presidency. If not Ebola, if not Zika, then something else. As my colleague Ed Yong wrote in his examination of how a pandemic might play out under the Trump administration: “Outbreaks of disease are among the ultimate tests for any leader who wants to play on the global stage. They demand diplomacy, decisiveness, leadership, humility, and expertise—and they quickly unearth any lack of the same.”

On Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg read Trump’s Ebola tweet to Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In the case of another Ebola outbreak, Goldberg asked, would Price recommend to the president that the U.S. allow infected health workers back into the country? 

Price definitively diverged from Trump on this. “It’s not only our responsibility,” to let them back, he said, “it’s a moral action that must be taken.”

Price spoke of his recent trip to Liberia, an epicenter of the 2014 outbreak. “That was a devastating crisis, but it would not have ended the way it did—in a positive way—without the United States’ involvement. That’s a community that’s thrilled that the U.S. engaged.”

Price’s praise of President Barack Obama’s response to Ebola also differs from the position Trump took at the time of the outbreak. In another tweet, Trump called Obama’s decision to send the military to West Africa “dumb.”

“The United States has an incredibly important role to play in terms of world health,” Price said. “I believe we are the leader.”

But Trump’s proposed budget includes a $1.2 billion cut to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that is at the forefront of U.S. leadership on international outbreak responses. The former CDC director Tom Frieden has called this cut “unsafe at any level of enactment.”

When Goldberg asked Price how to reconcile these cuts with his insistence on the importance of American global health leadership, Price said: “The premise to that question is that the CDC budget right now is exactly where it needs to be and there are no efficiencies to be gained. I would suggest to you that there are efficiencies that can be had.”

And as far as President Trump’s preparedness to handle whatever outbreak will inevitably emerge while he sits in the White House, Price expressed confidence. “I’ve been incredibly impressed with his inquisitiveness,” he said. “He’s got a great intellect. He’s engaging on the issues, and has a warmth about him, from a heart standpoint, for the nation that is impressive. When we have these conversations on the difficult challenges that exist, he fully understands and appreciates that the role of the United States is imperative in the world.”