10/29/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Obama Touts Heroism Of Ebola Health Care Workers

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday touted the heroism of health care workers fighting Ebola abroad, further emphasizing the disagreement between himself and other politicians who want the workers quarantined when they come home.

"All of them have signed up to leave their homes and their loved ones and head straight into the heart of the Ebola epidemic," Obama said during a White House event honoring American doctors and nurses returning from West Africa, where the Ebola virus has killed nearly 5,000 people.

"We need to call them what they are, which is American heroes," he said, surrounded by doctors and nurses in the White House East Room. "They deserve our gratitude and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

Some of the health care workers who shared the podium with Obama were within the 21-day monitoring period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people potentially exposed to Ebola, a White House official told The Huffington Post. The official added that the workers have followed CDC guidance and that none were symptomatic.

Obama, who has repeatedly sought to show he is unafraid of catching the virus from health workers officials have said shouldn't be contagious, shook hands with each of the workers after his speech.

Experts say Ebola is only transmissible through bodily fluids and that people aren't contagious unless they're showing symptoms, which include fever and vomiting. Nevertheless, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and other governors around the country have called for a quarantine on anyone returning from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone, the three countries where the virus is raging. Obama and public health experts have said that travel restrictions could prevent aid workers from going to the Ebola-stricken countries to help. The president of the World Bank has said the region needs at least 5,000 more such workers.

Per Christie's quarantine order, New Jersey on Friday confined nurse Kaci Hickox, who had just returned from a Doctors Without Borders mission in Sierra Leone, to a hospital tent for three days. Hickox was released after she threatened to sue, and both New Jersey and New York announced that other returning health care workers would be allowed to serve out their quarantines in their own homes.

On Tuesday, Christie said New Jersey's policy hadn't changed, even though the state had released Hickox. Obama, for his part, said on Wednesday in a thinly veiled reference to the quarantines, "If we're discouraging our health care workers who are prepared to make these sacrifices from traveling to these places in need, then we're not doing our job in terms of looking after our own health and safety."

Yet not all parts of the federal government are entirely on board with the president's message. The U.S. Army on Monday instituted a three-week quarantine for soldiers working in West Africa -- even though they haven't been interacting with Ebola victims. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the entire Defense Department would quarantine all troops returning from Ebola missions.

Obama defended the discrepancy Tuesday by saying people in the military live in a stricter environment to begin with, suggesting that defense personnel wouldn't mind quarantine as much as health care workers would.

"They are already, by definition, if they're in the military, under more circumscribed conditions," Obama said.

It has been two weeks since the last confirmed instance of anyone catching Ebola in America. The two nurses who were infected after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who contracted the virus after traveling to Texas last month, have both made full recoveries. Obama hugged one of the nurses, Nina Pham, at the White House last week.

"Let's give a hug for the cameras," Obama said at the time, according to a pool report.

This story has been updated to include comments from a White House official.



Ebola virus myth-busting