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Government officials on defense in Ebola hearing

Last Updated Oct 16, 2014 6:00 PM EDT

Members of Congress questioned government and hospital officials about their response to the Ebola crisis Thursday, seeking to identify any mistakes made in containing the virus in the United States. They also pushed for more aggressive measures to prevent it from spreading further.

Republican lawmakers were especially critical.

"The trust and credibility of the Administration and government are waning as the American public loses confidence each day with demonstrated failures of the current strategy," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel, at the start of the hearing. "That trust must be restored, but will only be restored with honest and thorough action."

Still, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Thomas Frieden, who took most of the questions, reiterated his confidence that "Ebola is not a significant public health threat to the United States."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters a travel ban was not under consideration because it might lead people to "go underground and to seek to evade this screening and to not be candid about their travel history in order to enter the country."

Much of the questioning was aimed at measures the CDC took to prepare hospitals for treatment of victims and protection of their workers from exposure to Ebola. Frieden was also repeatedly asked why the U.S. has not yet banned travelers from West Africa from entering the U.S.

Murphy called West African airport screening procedures "a demonstrated failure" and insisted it would be possible to restrict travel while still allowing medical supplies in.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, told Frieden he didn't understand why "we can't look at one's travel history and say no, you're not coming here."

"You're right, it needs to be solved in Africa, but until it is, we should not be allowing these folks in, period," Upton said.

Frieden defended the policy, saying that eliminating travel would eliminate the CDC's ability to identify who exactly is coming from West Africa.

"Right now we know who's coming in. If we try to eliminate travel...we won't be able to check them for fever when they leave, we wont be able to check them for fever when they arrive, we wont be able, as we do currently, to take a detailed history to see if they were exposed when they arrive. When they arrive we wouldn't be able to impose quarantine, as we now can if they have high risk contact," he said.

Some Democrats agreed with Frieden on the futility of a travel ban.

"There's no such thing as Fortress America when it comes to infectious diseases. And the best way to stop Ebola is going to be to stop this virus in Africa," said subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado.

Others, like Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, complained that budget cuts to public health funding were to blame for the growing ebola scare here.

"We need to be prepared before a crisis hits, not scrambling to respond after the crisis," Waxman said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.