The United States is fortunate that Ebola is the first of the major foreign disease outbreaks meriting global warnings over the last 10 years to reach American shores. It is clear that the institutions tasked with keeping Americans safe amid a health crisis are incapable of meeting their expectations.
The only reason why there are now two cases of Ebola contracted inside the United States is because the Centers for Disease Control allowed a local Texas hospital, which had no guidance on how to handle an Ebola patient save for general CDC guidelines, to care for one. The result was that now two health care workers have become infected with the disease.
“No one knew what the protocols were or were able to verify what kind of personal protective equipment should be worn and there was no training,” read a statement released by the National Nurses United union on behalf of several of the health care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
“Looking back, we say we should have put an even larger team on the ground immediately,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden conceded after noting that his agency could have had a “more robust management team and been more hands on from day one.” The horse is out of the barn now, isn’t it?
The CDC has been criticized for its careless response to the importation of Ebola into the U.S. via “index patient” Thomas Eric Duncan, but the last 24 hours have been instructive about how the CDC has responded to that criticism. Rather than functioning like a group of first responders in a crisis, the CDC much more closely resembles a federal bureaucracy managing a public relations disaster.
On Wednesday afternoon, it was revealed that Amber Vinson, the second care provider to contract Ebola, flew from Texas to Ohio the day before she was diagnosed with the deadly hemorrhagic fever. Vinson was not violently ill at the time, but she was feverish; she reportedly had a recorded temperature of 99.5 degrees.
“Although she did not report any symptoms and she did not meet the fever threshold of 100.4, she did report at that time she took her temperature and found it to be 99.5,” Frieden said on Wednesday. “I don’t think that changes the level of risk of people around her. She did not vomit, she was not bleeding, so the level of risk of people around her would be extremely low.”
In the same way that he expressed regrets about not providing Texas Presbyterian more hands-on guidance, Frieden lamented that his agency had not taken a more aggressive approach to preventing potential Ebola carriers from flying. He also noted that Vinson violated CDC guidelines when she flew.
“The CDC guidance in this setting outlines the need for controlled movement,” the CDC director told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday. “We will from this moment forward ensure that no other individual who is being monitored for exposure undergoes travel in any way other than controlled movement.”
It turns out, however, that Vinson was not a modern Typhoid Mary bent on spreading this deadly contagion. An investigation revealed that Vinson contacted the CDC several times before boarding a plane because she was concerned about her early display of the symptoms associated with Ebola.
“This nurse, Nurse Vinson, did in fact call the CDC several times before taking that flight and said she has a temperature, a fever of 99.5, and the person at the CDC looked at a chart and because her temperature wasn’t 100.4 or higher she didn’t officially fall into the category of high risk,” CBS medical correspondent Dr. John LaPook revealed.
Despite her fever, despite having worked directly on an Ebola patient, the CDC cleared Vinson to fly.
Every individual on Frontier Airlines flight 1143 is now going to be receiving a terrifying telephone call from CDC officials informing them that they will have to quarantine themselves for the next 20 days because someone on their end screwed up.
Moreover, apparently the airline was not informed that they had transported a high risk passenger for several hours. A CBS local investigation using the program Flighttracker observed that the plane on which Vinson flew was used an additional five times before it was taken out of service and disinfected.
“Those flights include a return flight to Cleveland, Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (FLL), FLL to Cleveland, Cleveland to Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), and ATL to Cleveland,” CBS reported.
Allowing Vinson may not have been a public health risk, but then why not disclose that? Why did the CDC not come forward with any of this information? Why did it take a cursory investigation to discover these breaches of health safety protocol?
Incompetence and excuse making are fundamental traits which the public has become accustomed to seeing in federal agencies and the bureaucrats who manage them, but first responders addressing an acute crisis are supposed to behave differently. If the public does not believe the federal government can get their arms around this Ebola crisis, the public will start taking matters into their own hands. That is an outcome no one wants to see.
The CDC is a disaster. The public sees that clearly now, and they are soon going to expect the White House to do something about it.
This post has been updated since its original publication.