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Sponsor of travel-ban bill stumped on key detail

A congressman is sponsoring legislation to ban travel between the U.S. and West Africa - but there are no direct flights between the U.S. and West Africa.
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-FL, debates during a Florida House session as a state representative, April 27, 2006, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-FL, debates during a Florida House session as a state representative, April 27, 2006, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) announced this week that he intends to introduce new legislation when Congress returns to work on an issue getting lots of attention: Ross bill would "ban travel between the U.S. and West African countries" in order to, in his words, prevent Ebola "from further infiltrating our homeland."
There's reason to believe, however, that the Florida Republican announced his proposal before doing his homework. As Igor Bobic noted, Ross appeared on msnbc this morning and ran into a little trouble.

A member of Congress who wants to ban travel from countries afflicted by the Ebola outbreak appeared to be unaware of a key fact -- that there are no direct flights between the U.S. and Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone. [...] Since there are no direct flights between the hardest-hit nations and the United States, the Florida Republican was pressed to specifically identify which flights he wanted to impose restrictions on. "I believe there are some flights," Ross responded.

There are not. As the New York Times' Jeremy Peters was quick to remind the congressman, "There are no flights. There are no direct flights that come to the United States from West Africa. That is incorrect."
As a factual matter, Peters is right. The question is why the congressman doesn't know that and why he didn't bother to check before unveiling his legislation.
The exchange coincide with remarks from Mike Leavitt, the former Bush/Cheney HHS Secretary and Mitt Romney aide, who agrees that there are "lots of problems" with proposed travel bans. It's worth appreciating why.
Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman wrote a good piece on this earlier, noting that public health experts are unanimous on this point.

There are three reasons why it's a crazy idea. The first is that it just won't work to stop the virus.... Writing in the Washington Post, Laurie Garrett -- senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations -- pointed out: "Many nations have banned flights from other countries in recent years in hopes of blocking the entry of viruses, including SARS and H1N1 'swine flu,'" she added. "None of the bans were effective, and the viruses gained entry to populations regardless of what radical measures were taken to keep them out." [...] The second reason a travel ban won't work is that it would actually make stopping the outbreak in West Africa more difficult. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, "To completely seal off and don't let planes in or out of the West African countries involved, then you could paradoxically make things much worse in the sense that you can't get supplies in, you can't get help in, you can't get the kinds of things in there that we need to contain the epidemic." [...] The third reason closing borders is nuts is that it will devastate the economies of West Africa and further destroy the limited health systems there.

Tara Culp-Ressler added, "Right now, government officials can coordinate with airport security to figure out where Ebola-infected people may have traveled before and after they started displaying symptoms. That's something the U.S. infrastructure is well-equipped to do. If travel becomes less systematic, however, airports won't serve as the same kind of resource. Considering the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the failure to effectively track patients has been one of the biggest reasons that Liberia hasn't been able to contain Ebola, this is not a direction we want to go in."
As for Ross, whose bill will likely generate swift and overwhelming support -- the travel-ban idea is emotionally satisfying for most, even if it's a bad idea -- here's the interview on msnbc this morning:
* Clarification: There are, as Ross' defenders have noted, direct flights from Africa to the United States. But Africa is a continent, and none of the countries in West Africa struggling with Ebola outbreaks have direct flights to U.S. soil.