DALLAS, October 2, 2014 — On Tuesday, the CDC announced that a man has officially tested positive for the deadly Ebola Virus in Dallas, Texas. During a press conference Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, assured listeners that everything was under control:
The bottom line here is that I have no doubt that we will control this importation, or this case of Ebola, so that it does not spread widely in this country. It is certainly possible that someone who had contact with this individual could develop Ebola in the coming weeks. But there is no doubt in my mind that we will stop it here.
That may be true, but it is not the whole story. While it is not the time to panic, the situation could be worse than the CDC let on just yesterday afternoon. Not only did the Dallas patient come into contact with hundreds of people, but he also had ample time to spread the disease.
The patient, Thomas Duncan, was symptomatic for over four days before he was admitted to the hospital. He was sent home from a hospital two days after the onset of symptoms, even though he reported having been in Liberia. Two days after that first hospital visit, he was taken back by ambulance after he was found violently vomiting outside his apartment complex. One resident who witnessed it said, “His whole family was screaming. He got outside and he was throwing up all over the place.”
It also turns out that Duncan possibly came into contact with five children, who could in turn have exposed their classmates to the virus had Duncan’s Ebola not been identified.
This current scenario presents a major problem for the CDC. The number of people who could have been exposed to the virus could easily have been much larger than they think it actually was. Duncan was asymptomatic, and thus not contagious, for most of the time he was in contact with the public, but he could have been. He was in an enclosed space with the hundreds of people who were on his three connecting flights from Liberia. He could potentially have come into contact with dozens of people at the airports he passed through, who would have carried the infection to dozens of other cities.
That nightmare scenario did not come to pass, but it was only by luck, not because we were so well prepared. What did happen was bad enough. Not only were his close family members at risk, but also those in the emergency room during his initial visit and the first responder personnel who provided care when he was brought in by ambulance. We don’t know where Duncan went during the four days before he was isolated. Did he stop somewhere to get lunch? How many people did he really come into contact with during those four days?
While the CDC assures us that everyone who came into contact with Duncan has been identified and is being closely monitored, it has not addressed the possibility that he could have directly or indirectly exposed more people than they are aware of.
Ebola is not spread through the air; it is spread through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. How many people touched a surface that could have been contaminated by the virus? What if Duncan stopped for a meal or medicine and handed the clerk contaminated money? These are the things we need to think about as we prepare to deal with potential Ebola outbreaks after Dallas, and that we shouldn’t ignore in Dallas.
The situation in Dallas may be under complete control, but it would be foolish to take that on faith. While it’s not the time to panic, it is the time to prepare and take preventive measures such as frequent hand washing. Is the situation truly under control or are things poised to get much worse? That is largely up to us.