Let’s start off by making one thing clear about Ebola. There is no outbreak in the United States.
The outsized reaction to one man’s death, although tragic, does not make for a crisis. Nor do the few confirmed cases involving health care workers who tended to victims of the disease.
That said, reaction by a few governors across the country, including our own, has been extreme. As observers have noted, the result seems to pander more to politics than actual science. That might satisfy those who believe that President Obama has been too slow and too soft in response and policy, but as a practical matter, it does nothing but stir an already boiling pot of anxiety in people unlikely to ever have anything to fear.
More Americans should carry a healthy concern for the flu, which commonly kills thousands per year. Instead, there is an unhealthy focus on a virus largely contained in West Africa and although, like any virus, it can be transported through a host, this country is fortunate enough to have modern medical care to make containment work.
Still, it is difficult to convince those who watched as events unfolded following the decision by Thomas Eric Duncan to leave Liberia on a plane and land in Dallas, carrying with him the Ebola virus. Even the airport personnel who took his temperature were unaware of his illness.
From there, the hospital where Duncan eventually sought treatment in the emergency room bungled the entire episode. It took days before he was then transported by ambulance, again without the proper protocols, to a hospital where he finally landed in isolated treatment.
Duncan died and two nurses involved in his treatment contracted the virus. The nurses were well cared for, and later declared free of the virus. Both were released from isolation and one even visited Obama in the White House, where she received a presidential bear hug – obviously designed to show Americans that there is, indeed, nothing to fear.
Then Craig Spencer, a doctor in New York City who had returned from Guinea, tested positive last week for the virus. Experienced in treating the virus, Spencer did what he was supposed to do in terms of monitoring his condition.
Over the weekend, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced draconian measures that called for mandatory quarantine of health workers returning from West African countries.
Nurse Kaci Hickox, who had worked with Doctors Without Borders in a clinic in Sierra Leone, became the test case when she attempted to travel through a New Jersey airport and wound up being kept against her will in a tent hospital. Christie recently ordered her release, although defiantly defending his actions by saying that she had appeared symptomatic. She argued that she was not symptomatic but just flustered and upset.
Cuomo, following pressure from the White House, backed off his insistence for mandatory quarantine. Still, the overreaction to what is pointedly not a crisis is troubling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does call for “high risk” individuals and health care workers without any symptoms to be directly monitored by state and local health authorities. Given what we have seen thus far, that seems sufficient, and won’t have the effect of dissuading American health professionals from traveling to West Africa to help treat the suffering and stem the outbreak.
Meanwhile, Buffalo’s own Dr. Myron Glick boldly told the story of his own recent return from a two-week trip to Sierra Leone to help a nurse who had worked for him at the Jericho Road Community Health Center in Buffalo set up a new medical clinic. Glick, who was not there to treat patients, is self-monitoring his health and sending twice-daily updates to the Erie County Health Department.
Viruses can – and do – travel as passengers in unwitting hosts. And fear can be a real factor in people’s behavior. It is important to remain vigilant and to educate people about Ebola and its means of transmission. But it is also important to remain calm and scale our response to the threat. And the fact is, the virus is largely contained in West Africa and shows no serious prospect of spreading here.