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The U.S. Ebola Case Shows Just How Weak Our Response Has Been

Getty Images/Pascal Guyot

You know the news of the day: the Ebola outbreak, which had been confined to West Africa, has reached the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced on Tuesday afternoon that a person who had travelled from Liberia to the U.S. on September 20 has tested positive for the disease. The person first displayed symptoms on September 24 and was hospitalized in Dallas, Texas two days later.

It’s certainly alarming that Ebola has hopped across the Atlantic, but there is no reason to panic. Even if you were on board the same commercial flight as this person, CDC does not recommend you undergo monitoring for the disease. That’s because Ebola is not contagious when the infected person is not displaying symptoms—as was the case during the flight. In fact, the disease only spreads through direct contact of bodily fluids, not through the air or casual contact. That’s a major reason why Ebola is easier to contain than SARS, which can spread through the air.

That still leaves a two-day period when the infected person displayed symptoms, before checking in to the hospital. But CDC says it’s on top of the situation. It is tracking every person who might have come in contact with the patient during that time; health workers will monitor these people for 21 days, which is the maximum incubation period for the disease. In addition, U.S. medical personnel and facilities are well equipped to handle Ebola. They have the supplies, like gloves and disinfectant spray, needed to treat infected people and can isolate them from the rest of the population.

Even though Ebola is not currently a threat to Americans, this incident is a much-needed reminder that our response to the outbreak in West Africa has been too small and slow. As Brendan Greeley and Caroline Chen explain in Bloomberg Businessweek, a potential drug that could cure those infected has been bogged down in government bureaucracy for years. Two American health workers who were infected in West Africa received an experimental version of the drug and recovered within a month, but we still don’t know whether the drug played a vital role in their recovery. With a more efficient system, we could have had a cure for the disease ready to combat the outbreak when it began.

Even without that drug, the U.S. should have done much more to help West Africa. For far too long, we gave very little in direct aid to help those countries. Only two weeks ago did the U.S. announce that it would send 3,000 military personnel to support Liberia. They will build 17 hospitals with 100 beds each and deliver much-need medical equipment to doctors. It’s an unprecedented response, but it still won’t be enough.

U.S. officials know this. Speaking at a high-level United Nations meeting last week, President Obama said, “We are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough.” Now that the disease has reached U.S. soil, hopefully Obama will follow through on those words and find a way to send more aid. As he also said at the U.N. meeting: “If we move fast, even if imperfectly, that could mean the difference between 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 deaths versus hundreds of thousands or even a million deaths.”

Danny Vinik

News from Tuesday:

GUN RIGHTS: California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that will allow for guns to be seized from people that a court determines to be a threat to themselves or others. The law comes in the wake of the tragic rampage of Elliot Rodger in May, who killed six students. (Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

OBAMACARE: A federal district judge in Oklahoma ruled in favor of the lawsuits challenging the federal government’s authority to distribute subsidies in states that don’t run their own exchanges. Jonathan Cohn checks with a few law professors to see whether the Supreme Court is likely to notice. Probably. (QED)

SECRET SERVICE: Another day, another potentially colossal mistake by the Secret Service revealed. This one came in Atlanta on September 16 when a CDC security officer operating an elevator began taking pictures of the president. Secret Service were unfamiliar with the CDC officer and questioned him soon after. Unbeknownst to the Secret Service agents, he had a gun on him at the time. (Susan Crabtree, Washington Examiner)

Articles worth reading:

A thousand days on Rikers Island: The story of Kalief Browder, a teenager who spent three years in the Robert N. Davoren Center for male adolescents on Rikers Island for a crime he didn’t commit. (Jennifer Gonnerman, The New Yorker)

What the drug companies paid your doctor: The federal government for the first time released data to the public about payments from drug and device makers to physicians. Pulitzer-winning health reporter Charles Ornstein explains what’s missing from this data dump, and what the available data includes. (ProPublica and NPR)

Naomi Klein is wrong. Her new book says that efforts to fight climate change are at odds with capitalism. Zachary Karabell thinks she overlooks the many ways that corporations are helping to slow global warming—and are having more success than some governments. (Slate)

Makers, Takers, and Fakers. Mitt Romney has a new explanation for his infamous 47 percent comments. Brian Beutler isn’t buying it. (New Republic)

Stories we'll be watching:

The Ebola case in Texas.


Rebecca Leber writes about a sobering new World Wildlife Fund report that shows exactly how much each country is to blame for ruining the environment. Danny Vinik weighs in on Iowa Representative Steve King’s strategy to scare Republican voters into opposing immigration reform.