Reflections on the Ebola panic

Dec. 14, 2014

Now that the misplaced hysteria about Ebola virus disease in the United States is dying down, I think it is a good time to make three points.

  • The only people who contracted Ebola in the United States were two of the nurses who treated Thomas Eric Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas: Nina Pham and Amber Vinson. Presumably, they failed to follow protocols to completely cover all exposed skin with personal protective equipment when treating Duncan, or they became infected when they were removing their PPE. In the earliest days of Duncan’s treatment, before protocols were completely established, it is not hard to see how such mistakes could have happened. Fortunately, Pham and Vinson received superb care and recovered.
  • No one else has contracted Ebola in the United States. No one. No other healthcare workers who treated Mr. Duncan or the handful of American citizens who were brought to the U.S. for treatment after contracting Ebola in Africa. None of the people on the planes with Vinson when she flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back before she was infectious. None of the people in New York who ate at restaurants, rode subways, or bowled at the bowling alley used by Dr. Craig Spencer, the physician who became infected with the virus in Liberia, contacted the New York Dept. of Health as soon as he showed symptoms, and was successfully treated. None of the contacts traced to Pham, Vinson, Spencer, or nurse Kaci Hickox, who came back from West Africa without Ebola but had her civil rights violated in two states anyway, supposedly out of “an abundance of caution.”
  • So, apparently U.S. healthcare officials were right, after all—even as they absorbed cheap shots from various directions. Once the PPE protocols were properly in place, the guidelines were successful. Ebola is a difficult virus to transmit; it is only transmissible via exposure to an infected person’s body fluids after he or she becomes symptomatic. The experts were right all along.

It was painful to hear a global hero (for his work with HIV), Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID); and a superb administrator, Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) head Dr. Thomas Frieden, attacked by right-wing radio talk show hosts and other ignoramuses and conspiracy theorists. But Fauci and Frieden had science on their side, and they were proven right. The handling of the threat by the Obama administration was also correct; the president deserves credit for charting a steady course when others were talking about revoking the visas of all travelers from West Africa and other counterproductive overreactions.

It’s also a good time to think about those overreactions, that so-called abundance of caution. I had to shake my head when schools were closed in Cleveland and Dallas because a parent of one of the students was aboard one of Vinson’s flights and a school staff member traveled on the same plane. Did educators make the decisions to close the schools? And I was appalled to read about the demonization by some of Duncan, who traveled to Texas to see loved ones and did not know he was ill; Vinson, who flew to Ohio to plan her wedding; Spencer, whose behavior was entirely responsible; and Hickox, who was “imprisoned” by one governor (New Jersey) and put under “house arrest” by another (Maine)—before cooler heads and an independent judiciary prevailed. 

Ebola will not become an epidemic in the United States. But our nation’s ongoing epidemic of ignorance and hostility toward one another continues to rage. Perhaps this holiday season and the coming year will see the beginnings of a cure.