In their early attempts to prevent panic in the United States, government officials spoke too quickly and with too much assurance when they told Americans not to worry about the Ebola virus crossing the country's borders. Last month, President Obama announced that all the necessary steps had been taken “so that someone with the virus doesn't get on a plane for the United States.” Had the public realized what those precautions consisted of — merely checking travelers' temperatures, even though infected people can remain without a fever for weeks, and asking them whether they had been in close contact with Ebola patients — many Americans probably would have disagreed with the president. It was only a matter of weeks before Obama's words proved inaccurate.
Nor were all U.S. medical facilities as prepared to recognize the signs of Ebola as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believed they were. That was made evident after a Dallas hospital sent Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan home with antibiotics, even though the hospital knew that he had recently arrived from Liberia. On Wednesday, Duncan died.
Preventing unnecessary anxiety is good, but not if it means failing to address valid concerns. Now the president and the CDC must consider not only which safety measures to invoke and when, but how to rebuild trust with the American public.
After Duncan's death, the government announced that in addition to the preflight screenings performed in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, travelers from those nations would be rescreened when they arrived in the United States — at least in the five airports where 94% of them arrive. Temperatures will be taken and passengers questioned a second time about contacts with infected people. Of course, some might lie, as Duncan did, but there is less incentive to do that once they have arrived safely in the U.S.
To these measures, authorities should consider adding a waiting period of several hours in the airport before checking for fever, to be sure that it has not been masked with acetaminophen or another medication, and expanding the screening to arrivals anywhere in the nation. And they should ask for detailed information about where the travelers will be staying and give them a phone number to call immediately should they feel ill.
No one should pretend that this is a fail-safe arrangement. But so far, this country has experienced only one lapse, and so far, none of the people with whom Duncan was in contact have fallen ill. It's too early to think about more draconian measures, such as quarantines or travel bans from the high-risk countries. But officials should reassure the public that they are open to strengthening safety precautions should that become necessary.
The Obama administration is doing the most important thing to keep the American public safe: providing resources to quell the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. By saving lives abroad, the United States might be able to prevent dangerous destabilization of the nations involved, and keep the outbreak from growing out of control so that there is no way to contain it within national or continental borders.
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