(Adds details on Ebola ‘czar’ Klain, patients and background)
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama appointed a former White House adviser as U.S. Ebola “czar” on Friday and a Texas health worker who may have had contact with specimens from an Ebola patient was quarantined on a cruise ship amid growing concerns about the spread of the virus in the United States.
Obama, facing criticism from some lawmakers over 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 efforts in the United States to contain Ebola even though there have been just three cases, all in Dallas, Texas. They were a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed in the country, and two nurses who cared for him.
The worst hit countries have been Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where nearly 4,500 people have died. The World Food Program said on Friday that food prices in those countries have risen by an average of 24 percent, forcing some families to reduce their intake to one meal a day.
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 take on coordination of the entire U.S. government response to Ebola, reporting directly to homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser.
The Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital worker aboard the cruise ship, who did not have direct contact with the now-deceased Liberian patient, Duncan, but could have processed his bodily fluids, left Sunday on a cruise from Galveston, Texas, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
The health worker has been self-monitoring since Oct. 6 and has not developed a fever or other symptoms of Ebola, the State Department said.
Carnival Cruise Lines said Friday it had been notified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that a passenger on the Carnival Magic was a lab supervisor at Texas Health Presbyterian. It said she was deemed to be “very low risk.”
The ship can carry 3,690 passengers and 1,367 crew, according to the company’s website. Carnival is owned by Carnival Corp.
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. “We are working with the cruise line to safely bring them back to the United States out of an abundance of caution,” Psaki said in the statement.
The government of Belize said in a statement that it had denied a request by U.S. officials to use a Belizean airport to transport a cruise ship passenger who was considered very low risk for Ebola.
“The passenger never set foot in Belize,” the statement said. “When even the smallest doubt remains, we will ensure the health and safety of the Belizean people.”
Klain was appointed the day after U.S. lawmakers held a congressional hearing about the administration’s handling of Ebola, with some calling for a ban on travel from West Africa, as other politicians have in recent weeks
Obama said he had no philosophical objection to a travel ban but that some travelers might attempt to enter the United States by avoiding screening measures, which could lead to more Ebola cases, not fewer.
On Thursday, he authorized calling up military reservists for the U.S. fight against Ebola in West Africa.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta told reporters separately that the government was assessing whether to issue a travel ban “on a day-to-day basis.”
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 was 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 at the weekend on Frontier Airlines while running a slight fever.
Dr. Christopher Braden, a CDC spokesman, said Vinson may have been ill as early as Friday, when she boarded the flight from Dallas to Cleveland.
Lawrence Vinson, Amber Vinson’s uncle, told CNN on Friday 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.
“They were given gear that was supposed to provide isolation and they were given protocols to follow that they believed would protect them,” Lawrence Vinson said.
He said his niece did not contact the CDC directly, but health workers in Texas had checked in with her in Ohio and made multiple calls to the CDC to get the go-ahead for her flight back to Dallas on Monday.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, has said it is unlikely passengers who flew with Vinson were infected because the nurse had not vomited or bled on the flight, but he said she should not have boarded the plane.
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.
Spain said on Friday that the four people hospitalized on Thursday as suspected Ebola patients had tested negative for the disease.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Mohammad Zargham, Frances Kerry and Jeff Mason in Washington, Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans and Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool