BY DIANE DIMOND
We have got to get smarter about controlling the ever-widening Ebola epidemic — and quickly. Ebola is not just a problem for the West African hotspots of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. And the Department of Homeland Security’s new system of simply questioning and taking the temperature of incoming air travelers from West Africa isn’t enough to control this pandemic.
This is a modern-day Pandora’s Box with deadly, worldwide consequences, and the Centers of Disease Control admits it dropped the ball from the get-go.
At this writing, there are two known cases of American nurses contracting Ebola from a Liberian patient who traveled to the U.S. in late September and died in a Dallas hospital Oct. 8.
Thomas Duncan did not know he was infected when he flew here. The hospital didn’t suspect it either and initially released him with a temperature of 103. By the time he returned two days later, Duncan, 45, had potentially exposed dozens of people who are now in a 21-day quarantine.
Before her temperature spiked, one of the nurses traveled to Ohio to stay with relatives and see her fiance. On a commercial airline flight back to Dallas, she admits she had “a low-grade fever.” Why was a nurse who attended to the dying Duncan’s intimate needs even on an airplane? Because no one at the CDC ordered the hospital staff to restrict their travel.
Further, the nurse says she contacted the CDC about her elevated temperature before flying home and was told it wasn’t high enough to keep her off the plane. As a result, the 132 passengers aboard her flight, the flight crew and those the nurse visited in Ohio are all being counseled to watch for signs of Ebola.
How contagious is Ebola? The World Health Organization now predicts West Africa could soon see 10,000 new cases every week. The percentage of infected people who could find their way to the U.S. keeps increasing, and experts say the two Texas nurses are unlikely to be the last to be stricken here.
America’s narrow focus on new screening protocols at the five U.S. airports through which most (but not all) West African travelers enter is monumentally short sighted. Think about the last time you got off a flight. Passengers immediately scatter for restroom stops, the long walk or train ride to another terminal, the trudge to the luggage carousel or, in the case of foreign travelers, to the U.S. Customs area.
It could be half an hour or longer before a potential Ebola victim gets their temperature taken. During that time, fellow passengers who might have been exposed are long gone.
And, while Customs agents are doing their thing, a cleanup crew is already on the plane getting it ready for quick turnaround. They could become infected while picking up used paper cups and tissues stuffed in seat flaps. And not to be too dramatic about it, but an infected crewmember could unknowingly exchange deadly bodily fluids by simply kissing a loved one. They could cough or sneeze inside another plane — potentially spreading the infection further.
And think about this: As the Ebola threat looms, so does the traditional flu season with symptoms much like, you guessed it, Ebola.
Before public panic sets in and emergency rooms fill up with frantic patients, we need to cut off all air travel from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. We need to flag the passports of citizens from those countries and deny them entry for a period of time. I know this idea has already been dismissed by Washington, but it shouldn’t have been.
Our best bet is to concentrate on isolating the virus where it was born so it can die there. That is the most logical way to fight an epidemic.
Still, some insist we can’t do that. Critics of a travel ban say it could harm the economies of those African countries, as if the outbreak hasn’t already done that. The head of the CDC, Thomas Friedan, maintains a ban would restrict the ability of relief workers and medical supplies from getting into the Ebola Zone.
Nonsense. Anyone who wanted to go help could still go. Their return might be delayed by a quarantine for 21 days, but tightly controlled exceptions could be made if they actually contracted Ebola. They could be transported home for treatment much the same as several Americans who contracted the disease were. Two medical doctors, a missionary and an NBC cameraman have been successfully returned and treated.
Close to 5,000 lives have been lost so far in what is the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. This is not a time for discussion about America’s traditionally open borders. It is time to slam the lid tight on this plague.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net