US Health Officials See Ebola Case in Texas as Success Story?


Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell

At a White House briefing today, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell declared, “These processes work.” She was referring to the systems in place since the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last March.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger disconnect between the optimistic tone of today’s news conference and the reality that some ordinary Americans see.

U.S. health officials actually seemed to portray the emergence of an Ebola case in Dallas as a success story.

But the evidence indicates otherwise.

After all, a patient infected with Ebola arrived undetected in the U.S.

He arrived despite screenings in the affected nations prior to passengers boarding flights and despite screenings after their arrival in the U.S. What’s more, the patient allegedly was not truthful on a form asking whether he’d been in contact with Ebola patients. And once ill in the U.S., he was initially sent home from the hospital despite processes set forth by CDC.

Instead of success, the case seems to represent a breakdown at nearly every step.

Still, Obama administration officials said that tracing who the patient was in contact with is what’s really important.

Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco briefs President Obama on a matter in April 2013.

Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco briefs President Obama on a matter in April 2013.

A reporter asked why the U.S. hasn’t considered a limited travel ban to protect Americans. President Obama’s chief homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco said that a travel ban would make it harder for the U.S. to respond to the outbreaks in West Africa. The reporter clarified (stating the obvious): He didn’t mean stopping flights leaving the U.S., he meant stopping flights coming to the U.S. from the infected region. Of course, exceptions could be made for health and military responders.

Monaco then argued that “dozens” of people with Ebola in West Africa have been stopped from travelling so the measures in place are “effective.”

That’s akin to claiming defenses are successful if a killer fires ten bullets and only one hits and kills the victim. (Well, nine of them missed.)


To ordinary people, the Obama administration’s insistence that a travel ban hasn’t even been discussed comes off as oddly stubborn. Perhaps somebody just needs to help us understand—what’s the down side? Nobody wants panic, but if ever there were a time to err on the side of caution, it would seem this is it. It’s hard to see a serious negative to temporarily limiting travel from the infected nations. We’re already experiencing the down side from the failure to do so.

For stories that I reported after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I consulted with many top infectious disease experts who discussed plans to prevent an infectious disease attack by terrorists.

They taught me that Infectious Disease 101 teaches you must do everything you can to keep it from getting here in the first place. Once it’s here, all else is damage control and that’s obviously much more difficult.

Tonight, Fox News anchor Bret Baier posed the question of why no travel ban in an interview with Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson. First, Johnson avoided the question and repeated the measures currently being taken. When Baier tried again, Johnson evoked what Monaco said at the White House: that a travel ban would interrupt the U.S. attempt to deliver health care in other countries, so it is “not the way to go.”

With no consideration of a travel ban, Monaco was nonetheless reassuring.

“Every Ebola outbreak in the past 40 years has been stopped,” she said. “We know how to do this and we will do it again…The American people should be confident because the public health infrastructure we have here is so expert, is so extensive, and is considerable.”

The National Institutes of Health head of infectious disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, acknowledged mistakes have been made but emphasizes, “There were a lot of things that went right…We understand your concern but the evidence base tells us [an outbreak in the U.S. is] not going to happen.”

However, if the immediate goal was to keep Ebola out of the U.S. in the first place, there’s no doubt the system has already failed.

This is a commentary


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