WASHINGTON – Let’s make a deal: We’ll all promise not to panic about Ebola if the experts – especially those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – agree to get their stories straight.
They should begin by giving a better explanation of why they have concluded it would be wrong to “stop the flights” arriving from the Ebola hot zone, beginning with the fact that there are no such flights: There is no direct commercial air service between the countries at the epicenter of the outbreak – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and the United States.
Travelers from those countries must make one or more intermediate stops to get here, meaning that any travel ban would have to target individuals based on nationality or recent visits to the affected countries. Experts should explain why this idea is neither crazy nor politically incorrect but simply, in their professional opinion, inadvisable.
The risk that limiting travel to and from West Africa would hamper efforts to control the outbreak is real. Saying that charter flights could be arranged for aid workers ignores the necessarily decentralized and ad hoc nature of response to this kind of emergency. Doctors, nurses and other volunteers need to be able to go into the hot zone when they are ready, not when seats happen to open up on a charter.
They also need to know beforehand that they will be able to rotate out of the zone in a timely fashion. There is an obvious role that military or charter aircraft can play in evacuating aid workers who have been in close contact with Ebola patients. For those with less risk of exposure – those who, say, could advise health officials in affected countries but not actually treat victims of the disease – travel restrictions would serve no purpose except to make them think twice about going.
With polls showing majority support for some kind of travel ban, CDC Director Tom Frieden and others should not just state their position on the issue but show a willingness to engage with those who disagree. Experts should acknowledge that restrictions might help keep out the Ebola virus in the short run – but would, in their view, put Americans more at risk in the long run.
Pressed at a House committee hearing Thursday about travel curbs, Frieden gave a terse answer: “We will consider any options to better protect Americans.” Asked about other countries that have imposed restrictions, Frieden said he was unfamiliar with the details. Really? Wouldn’t that be important to know?
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, did a somewhat better job at the hearing of explaining the consensus view: It is better to interview, track and, if necessary, quarantine the 100-150 travelers entering the country from West Africa daily than risk the likelihood that at least a few infected individuals would manage to circumvent any ban.
Health experts also need to explain what went wrong in Dallas, Cleveland and points in between.
With two nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas now being treated for Ebola, it is obvious that normal protocols for dealing with highly infectious diseases are not adequate for this virus. The most urgent task for the CDC and NIH is making sure that health workers nationwide – the Americans most at risk – are armed with procedures and equipment that can keep them safe.
It is understandable, perhaps, that the Dallas hospital was initially unprepared to handle Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan and that nurses involved in his early treatment might be exposed. But now, every hospital in the country should be on notice. The vast majority of health professionals will never deal with an Ebola case – but cases “could present anywhere,” as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said at Thursday’s hearing, which means that all nurses and doctors need to be prepared.
There also has to be an explanation of how the CDC handled the case of Amber Joy Vinson, the second nurse with the virus. First we were told that she should not have traveled home from Cleveland to Dallas on a commercial airliner. Then CDC officials admitted that they cleared her to take the flight, even though she had a fever of 99.5. Then we learned that she might have been symptomatic – and thus potentially infectious – while on that Frontier Airlines plane.
The thing is, Americans are anxious about Ebola but not panicked. This will change, however, unless experts speak more honestly about the nature of the threat.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugene firstname.lastname@example.org.
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▪ Charles Krauthammer says we may have to reconsider some individual rights to stop the Ebola outbreak.
▪ Michael Gerson writes that health workers are at the greatest risk of being infected.