The country’s first Ebola patient—Thomas Eric Duncan, who was visiting Dallas from West Africa—has died. But the fact that he was mistakenly sent home when he first showed up at a Texas hospital complaining of symptoms, does not exactly inspire confidence in our healthcare system.
Especially considering that CDC director Thomas Frieden said in a Tuesday news conference that “we’re stopping [Ebola] in its tracks in this country.”
I mean, you gotta wonder: Can we be sure?
After all, Duncan told a hospital nurse that he was visiting from Liberia, the West African country in the midst of the Ebola hot zone. And yet he was still sent home, and Dallas health officials are now monitoring up to 50 people, including five schoolchildren, who may have been exposed to the virus, the New York Times reported.
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In addition, two days after he was released from the hospital, Duncan returned by ambulance, putting emergency responders at risk as well. So far they have tested negative, but state and county health officials say they are also looking at a wide range of people who may have had contact with Duncan or his family members in the days before he was hospitalized.
“Clearly, something went wrong in Dallas, but most of us know what the protocols are — we know to ask patients if they’ve traveled outside the country and if they have any specific symptoms,” Debra Spicehandler, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., said in an interview. “We’ve been working with the local health department and the CDC on this for weeks.”
Ebola symptoms can take as long as 21 days to show up, and the fever, aches and nausea at the beginning could easily be mistaken for the flu or other illnesses, which is why it’s crucial that health care workers ask questions about recent travel.
“If they say they haven’t traveled outside of the U.S. in the last 21 days, that’s the end of the Ebola discussion right there,” Mark Kline, an infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, told Time.com.
Duncan had had his temperature checked before his flight to the U.S. and was not showing symptoms at the time, the CDC’s Frieden told reporters. Ebola is contagious only if the person has symptoms, and it is spread only through close contact with bodily fluids, not through the air. “That’s why the passengers on the man’s plane weren’t at risk,” explained Spicehandler.
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Still, the news that Ebola had finally made it to the U.S. — and that health care workers flubbed this first instance — has many people rattled. The virus has killed about 4,000 people in West Africa and sickened more than 8,300 there.
Adding to people's worries: U.S. nurses say they are unprepared and untrained to handle Ebola patients, according to Reuters.
Top health officials repeatedly point out that our health care system is well-equipped to deal with the disease — assuming everyone follows the protocols set up by the CDC. Considering this is the same week we found out that the Secret Service couldn’t even lock the front door to the White House, it tests one’s faith in the government’s ability to keep us safe.
In the meantime, a new CDC press release reminds us of other precautions travelers can take.
- Travelers from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone should monitor their health for 21 days after travel for these symptoms: Fever greater than 101.5 degrees F, severe headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, or unexplained bruising or bleeding. See a health care provider as soon as any of these symptoms develop, letting him or her know of your travel history.
- If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has traveled to these countries and you have developed symptoms, let your health care worker know as soon as possible.
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