October brings with it a yearly epidemic that, depending on its severity, kills between 3,000 to 50,000 Americans. It’s called the flu. Americans don’t panic; they get their flu shots, wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, and the flu season passes.
Neither are Americans panicked over Ebola (and they shouldn’t be). Polls show the majority (56 percent) of the public believes the United States is prepared to handle Ebola. A minority (42 percent) says we are not prepared.
The answer to preparedness comes down, my friends, to the local level. We have a federal system, which is to say that power is shared between the federal government and the states.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not have authority over your state’s health system. It’s up to your governor, your mayor, and your state and local health officials to ensure that if Ebola comes to your town (highly unlikely), they are fully prepared.
The CDC has a good track record in preventing and controlling infectious diseases. It was, however, overconfident in its assessment of preparedness of the nation’s local hospitals. The Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas gives evidence of human error in an otherwise fine institution.
In addition to Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan being sent home, though running an infectious fever, protocol was clearly breached in his treatment. Now, two nurses who cared for Duncan are quarantined with the illness, although with a much better chance at survival because it was caught early. The CDC cannot be everywhere at once, and local health officials must be vigilant in maintaining proper protocol.
The CDC does bear responsibility for allowing the second nurse, Amber Joy Venson, to fly. She properly called CDC and reported a low-grade fever. Now, Ebola is not considered infectious until one’s body temperature reaches 101.4 degrees. Her temperature was 99.5.
The person at CDC who gave the nurse permission to fly followed the guidelines in place. But those rules are not for a health worker who’s been exposed to an Ebola patient.
“From this moment forward, we’ll be sure that no one who has been exposed will travel except under controlled movement,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said.
President Obama has ordered that the CDC have “SWAT teams” of health care advisers in place that will be sent within hours to any localities with symptomatic Ebola patients. He stated that the CDC would be present “so that they are taking the local hospital step by step through exactly what needs to be done and making sure that all the protocols are properly observed; that the use of protective equipment is done effectively; that disposal of that protective equipment is done properly.” A CDC team is in Dallas to supervise and monitor Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
Some are arguing we should shut down all travel with West Africa to contain the spread of Ebola. That’s a simple and easy response, but it is misguided and not a solution. Not only are screenings being done at airports in West Africa to ensure no one who is sick or has a fever gets on a flight, but these screenings are happening here too.
The CDC, under direction from the White House, has initiated enhanced screening at five of the nation’s airports where 94 percent of travelers from West Africa (where the outbreak is localized) enter the United States. Those measures include “layered” checks, and the specific screening of travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Temperatures will be taken, detailed questions will be asked, and potential hospitalization will occur for any who show an elevated temperature. Remember, Ebola is not infectious until someone shows symptoms.
Additionally, shutting down travel with these nations would isolate them from medical aid and public health professionals, exactly the opposite of what we want to do when attacking a largely localized epidemic. World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl explains: “If you try to shut down air travel and sea travel, you risk affecting to a huge extent the economy, people’s livelihoods and their ability to get around without stopping the virus from traveling. You can’t ship goods in. Sometimes these goods are basic staples people need to survive — food and fuel.”
With travel bans in place, the economies of affected West African nations would be crippled and governments would be at risk of failing. And other nations would be less forthcoming with reports about Ebola for fear of being isolated themselves, thus increasing the risk of the disease spreading.
The past is instructive. When Americans were worried that avian influenza (the so-called “bird flu”) would spread to the U.S., the Bush administration studied the idea of instituting travel bans. It found these bans would be ineffective and could interfere with the transport of health professionals and medical aid.
The good news is that the battle with Ebola is one we can win. Local authorities must follow protocol and the international community must attack Ebola at its source in West Africa. Nigeria has stopped Ebola cold and reduced the fatality rate by 50 percent.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.