When the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. died Wednesday, any sense of calm that remained about the virus in America apparently went with him.
In the early coverage of Thomas Eric Duncan’s diagnosis, it was the discussion of Ebola’s “non-specific,” early symptoms—similar to those of the common cold—that struck a chord. Hours after these reports, one of which I published, the mania was in full swing. CDC reminders that one would have to come in contact with the bodily fluids of an Ebola victim themselves before getting infected fell on deaf ears. At hospitals across the nation, panicked Americans with flu symptoms began convincing themselves they were next.
There were cases in Honolulu, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Each accompanied by ominous press conferences and media briefings, each “no threat” conclusion quickly followed by a new case, a new city. Public health resources aren't unlimited. Every time someone comes in with bogus "Ebola-like" symptoms, that pushes back treatment for real disease and injury.
In the hours after Duncan’s death, the false alarms have simply grown louder. When a sheriff in Frisco, Texas involved in the Duncan case told his son he felt nauseous Wednesday afternoon, the local hospital’s decision to admit him under an “abundance of caution” exploded into a national news event. CNN juxtaposed a shot of a racing ambulances and caution tape alongside the livestream of a Frisco official, who Twitter had convinced itself was about to break news about the second victim. Instead, he declared the patient to be a “minimal risk.”
In some ways, panic is justified. Ebola is a horrifying disease for which there is no cure. In West Africa, where the epidemic began, the number of cases has been soaring for eight straight months. As of this week, more than 7,000 cases have been confirmed and more than 3,500 lives lost. In the hardest hit regions, villages lack even the resources to stay hydrated and nourished. “If the international community does not stand up, we will be wiped out,” an MSF nurse told the world from Monrovia in Liberia. But for the majority of the American public, the panic seems displaced.
For lack of other victims, Duncan has become, in the words of CDC Director Thomas Frieden Wednesday, “the face of Ebola.” Only one person has been diagnosed with Ebola here. Zero survived. Those odds are as terrifying as they are misleading.
There is no cure for Ebola, but there is treatment. This statement is backed not only by science, but our own experience. Three humanitarian workers infected with Ebola have been brought back to receive treatment here. Aided by care, heroic health care workers, and—in some cases—experimental drugs, all three survived. For Duncan’s body, the treatment was either insufficient or overdue—or both.
But despite daily briefings from the CDC that the disease is only capable of spreading through the bodily fluids of a contagious person, mania ensues. Beyond the psychological implications is the babysitting this level of fear requires.
For every "potential Ebola victim" that arises in the U.S., the CDC is forced to mobilize to the location. Twice in the past two weeks, this has entailed meeting a plane on the runway to retriever sick passengers who may be infected. It’s an enormous amount of pressure to put on the only American organization with the ability to test for Ebola—not to mention a drain on resources.
Dr. Lee Norman is a Chief Medical Officer at the University of Kansas Hospital and a longtime bio threat advisor to Homeland Security. For Norman, who has 40 years experience in the bio safety universe, the circumstances in which individuals become panicky is not difficult to imagine. “They say, I’ve got fever, muscle aches, chills, headache and sore throat—these are the early symptoms of Ebola,” he says. “It’s understandable that people are frightened because the information sometimes is contradictory.”
But while Norman sympathizes with the fear, he does not believe in its validity. “If a person hasn’t traveled to these regions in West Africa, or come in contact with someone who was there and got ill, then the likelihood of catching or being exposed to Ebola is about 0,” says Norman. “It is the responsibility of health care providers and the media to help people put things in perspective.”
Dr. Irwin Redlener the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a professor in health policy and management has a different opinion. The death of Duncan, says Redlener, should be a “wake up call” both to the government and general public about how underprepared America is for a bio threat. “Preparing hospital systems or EMTs or doctors for disasters which are rare requires money because people have to get trained,” says Redlener. “When we decimate the funding for hospital preparedness, we put ourselves in great peril.”
Over the course of a decade, funding for our hospital preparedness program has been virtually cut in half, from its peak of $500 million in 2003 to around $250 million in 2014. Insufficient training, technology, and equipment to handle an Ebola epidemic, says Redlener, are byproducts of these cuts. “We have lost the surge capacity that we once had and that we once aspired to.”
Rather than convince other Americans that they too have Ebola, Redlener thinks the case should motivate the nation to refocus on disaster preparedness. The Ebola epidemic, he’s quick to clarify, is not the disaster itself. “I can understand why people are frightened by this it’s in a category of violent illnesses that end very badly,” he says. But feeling anxious and unsettled about an epidemic that your own nation seems underequipped to handle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “People look at Ebola in America, they are looking at what’s going on in Africa and are probably rightly distressed about the problem,” says Redlener. “It may not be rational but I don’t think it’s going to harm the country.”
Whether our individual panic over Ebola is justified or not remains to be seen. But with no sign of an epidemic in the U.S. it seems, at the very least, irrational. Norman agrees. “In our mind’s eye we see very graphic images of people going crazy; dying in the streets,” he says. “Indeed dying in the streets is happening—but it’s happening in Africa.”