Remarks by the President on America's Leadership in the Ebola Fight
South Court Auditorium
1:46 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Please, everybody, have a seat. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Well, thank you, Rear Admiral Giberson, not only for the introduction, but for your leadership and your service.
Last summer, as Ebola spread in West Africa, overwhelming public health systems and threatening to cross more borders, I said that fighting this disease had to be more than a national security priority, but an example of American leadership. After all, whenever and wherever a disaster or a disease strikes, the world looks to us to lead. And because of extraordinary people like the ones standing behind me, and many who are in the audience, we have risen to the challenge.
Now, remember, there was no small amount of skepticism about our chances. People were understandably afraid, and, if we’re honest, some stoked those fears. But we believed that if we made policy based not on fear, but on sound science and good judgment, America could lead an effective global response while keeping the American people safe, and we could turn the tide of the epidemic.
We believed this because of people like Rear Admiral Giberson. We believed this because of outstanding leaders like Dr. Raj Shah at USAID and Dr. Tom Frieden at the CDC. (Applause.) We believed it because of the men and women behind me and the many others here at home and who are still overseas who respond to challenges like this one not only with skill and professionalism, but with courage and with dedication. And because of your extraordinary work, we have made enormous progress in just a few months.
So the main reason we’re actually here today is for me to say thank you. Thank you to the troops and public health workers who left their loved ones to head into the heart of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa -- and many of them did so over the holidays. Thank you to the health care professionals here at home who treated our returning heroes like Dr. Kent Brantly and Dr. Craig Spencer. Thank you to Dr. Tony Fauci and Nancy Sullivan, and the incredible scientists at NIH, who worked long days and late nights to develop a vaccine. All of you represent what is best about America and what’s possible when we lead.
And we’re also here to mark a transition in our fight against this disease -- not to declare mission accomplished, but to mark a transition. Thanks to the hard work of our nearly 3,000 troops who deployed to West Africa, logistics have been set up, Ebola treatment units have been built, over 1,500 African health workers have been trained, and volunteers around the world gained the confidence to join the fight. We were a force multiplier. It wasn’t just what we put in; it’s the fact that when we put it in, people looked around and said, all right, America has got our back, so we’ll come too. And as a result, more than 1,500 of our troops have been able to return.
Today, I’m announcing that by April 30th, all but 100 who will remain to help support the ongoing response, all but those hundred will also be able to come home -- not because the job is done, but because they were so effective in setting up the infrastructure, that we are now equipped to deal with the job that needs to be done in West Africa, not only with a broader, international coalition, but also with folks who have been trained who are from the countries that were most at risk.
So I want to be very clear here: While our troops are coming home, America’s work is not done. Our mission is not complete. Today, we move into the next phase of the fight, winding down our military response while expanding our civilian response. That starts here at home, where we’re more prepared to protect Americans from infectious disease, but still have more work to do. For as long as Ebola simmers anywhere in the world, we will have some Ebola fighting heroes who are coming back home with the disease from time to time. And that’s why we’re screening and monitoring all arrivals from affected countries. We’ve equipped more hospitals with new protective gear and protocols. We’ve developed partnerships with states and cities, thanks to public servants like Mayor Mike Rawlings and Judge Clay Jenkins of Dallas, Texas, who were on the front lines when the first case appeared here on our shores.
A few months ago, only 13 states had the capability to even test for Ebola. Today, we have more than 54 labs in 44 states. Only three facilities in the country were qualified to treat an Ebola patient. Today, we have 51 Ebola treatment centers. We have successfully treated eight Ebola patients here in the United States. And we are grateful to be joined by six of these brave survivors today, including Dr. Richard Sacra, who received world-class care at Nebraska Medical Center -- and a plasma donation from Dr. Kent Brantly. Then he returned to Liberia to treat non-Ebola patients who still need doctors. That’s the kind of commitment and the kind of people we’re dealing with here. (Applause.)
Meanwhile, in West Africa, it’s true that we have led a massive global effort to combat this epidemic. We mobilized other countries to join us in making concrete, significant commitments to fight this disease, and to strengthen global health systems for the long term. In addition to the work of our troops, our USAID DART teams have directed the response. Our CDC disease detectives have traced contacts. Our health care workers and scientists helped contain the outbreak. Our team is providing support for 10,000 civilian responders on the ground.
That’s what Brett Sedgewick did. Where’s Brett? There here is. (Laughter.) So Brett went to Liberia with Global Communities, which is an NGO that partnered with us to respond to Ebola. Brett supported safe-burial teams that traveled to far-flung corners of Liberia to ensure that those who lost their lives to Ebola were carefully, safely, and respectfully buried so that they could not transmit the disease to anyone else. And Brett reflects the spirit of so many volunteers when he said, “If you need me, just say the word.” That’s a simple but profound statement.
That’s who we are -- big-hearted and optimistic, reflecting the can-do spirit of the American people. That’s our willingness to help those in need. They’re the values of Navy Lieutenant Andrea McCoy and her team. Andrea, raise your hand so that I don’t look -- (laughter). Andrea and her team deployed some seven tons of equipment, processed over 1,800 blood samples. They’re the values that drive Commander Billy Pimentel. Where’s Billy? Raise your hand.
COMMANDER PIMENTEL: Here, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, sir. (Laughter.) Like that Navy can-do attitude.
He led a team of Naval microbiologists to set up mobile laboratories that can diagnose Ebola within four hours. And he said, “It has been an honor for us to use our skills to make a difference.”
These values -- American values -- matter to the world. At the Monrovia Medical Unit in Liberia -- built by American troops; staffed by Rear Admiral Giberson and his team from the U.S. Public Health Service Corps -- a nurse’s aide named Rachael Walker went in for treatment, and left Ebola-free. And I want you to listen to what Rachael’s sister said about all of you. “We were worried at first,” she said, “but when we found out [Rachael] was being transferred to the American Ebola treatment unit, we thanked God first and then we thanked America second for caring about us.”
And the Americans who she was speaking of aren’t just doctors or nurses, or soldiers or scientists. You’re what one lieutenant commander from the U.S. Public Health Service Corps called the “hope multipliers.” And you’ve multiplied a lot of hope. Last fall, we saw between 800 and 1,000 new cases a week. Today, we’re seeing between 100 and 150 cases a week -- a drop of more than 80 percent. Liberia has seen the best progress, Sierra Leone is moving in the right direction, Guinea has the longest way left to go.
Our focus now is getting to zero. Because as long as there is even one case of Ebola that’s active out there, risks still exist. Every case is an ember that, if not contained, can light a new fire. So we’re shifting our focus from fighting the epidemic to now extinguishing it.
The reason we can do that is because of a bipartisan majority in Congress, including some of the members who are here today, who approved funding to power this next phase in our response. And I want to thank those members of Congress who are here for the outstanding work that they did. (Applause.) One of them, Chris Coons, recently traveled to the region and saw firsthand that we have to continue this fight in Africa.
So while our troops are coming home, plenty of American heroes remain on the ground, with even more on the way. Doctors and nurses are still treating patients, CDC experts are tracking cases, NIH teams are testing vaccines, USAID workers are in the field, and countless American volunteers are on the front lines. And while I take great pride in the fact that our government organized this effort -- and I particularly want to thank Secretary Burwell and her team at Health and Human Services for the outstanding work that they did -- we weren’t working alone. I just had a chance to meet with some leading philanthropists who did so much, and are now committed to continuing the work and finding new ways in which we can build platforms not only to finish the job with respect to Ebola, but also to be able to do more effective surveillance, prevention, and quick response to diseases in the future.
Other nations have joined the fight, and we’re going to keep working together -- because our common security depends on all of us. That’s why we launched the Global Health Security Agenda last year to bring more nations together to better prevent and detect and respond to future outbreaks before they become epidemics. This was a wakeup call, and why it’s going to be so important for us to learn lessons from what we’ve done and sustain it into the future.
And in the 21st century, we cannot built moats around our countries. There are no drawbridges to be pulled up. We shouldn’t try. What we should do is instead make sure everybody has basic health systems -- from hospitals to disease detectives to better laboratory networks -- (applause) -- all of which allows us to get early warnings against outbreaks of diseases. This is not charity. The investments we make overseas are in our self-interest -- this is not charity; we do this because the world is interconnected -- in the same way that the investments we make in NIH are not a nice-to-do, they are a must-do. We don’t appreciate basic science and all these folks in lab coats until there’s a real problem and we say, well, do we have a cure for that, or can we fix it? And if we haven't made those investments, if we’ve neglected them, then they won’t be there when we need them.
So as we transition into a new phase in this fight, make no mistake -- America is as committed as ever, I am as committed as ever to getting to zero. And I know we can. And I know this because of the people who stand behind me and the people out in the audience. I know this because of people like Dr. William Walters. William, you here?
DR. WALTERS: Sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Laughter.)
Dr. Walters is the Director of Operational Medicine at the State Department. Last summer, he was called to help move Dr. Kent Brantly -- who’s here -- back to the United States for treatment. And Dr. Walters says the first thing he did was to Google Dr. Brantly. (Laughter.) A little plug for Google there. I know we got some -- (laughter.) And the first picture he saw was of Kent and his family.
Now, remember, the decision to move Kent back to the United States was controversial. Some worried about bringing the disease to our shores. But what folks like William knew was that we had to make the decisions based not on fear, but on science. And he knew that we needed to take care of our heroes who had sacrificed so much to save the lives of others in order for us to continue to get people to make that kind of commitment. They had to know we had their backs in order for us to effectively respond. And so, as William said, “We do the work we do to impact something bigger than ourselves.” We do the work we do to impact something bigger than ourselves.
That’s the test of American leadership. We have this extraordinary military. We have an extraordinary economy. We have unbelievable businesses. But what makes us exceptional is when there’s a big challenge and we hear somebody saying it’s too hard to tackle, and we come together as a nation and prove you wrong. That’s true whether it’s recession, or war, or terrorism. There are those who like to fan fears. But over the long haul, America does not succumb to fear. We master the moment with bravery and courage, and selflessness and sacrifice, and relentless, unbending hope. That’s what these people represent. That’s what’s best in us. And we have to remember that, because there will be other circumstances like this in the future.
We had three weeks in which all too often we heard science being ignored, and sensationalism, but you had folks like this who were steady and focused, and got the job done. And we’re lucky to have them, and we have to invest in them.
So I want to thank all of you for proving again what America can accomplish. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. Thank you. (Applause.)
2:03 P.M. EST