Say, Whatever Happened To The Ebola Crisis?

Much like the disease itself, Ebola panic seems to have disappeared as the midterm elections become ever more distant in the rear view mirror.

Ebola Virus And Caduceus

Almost as suddenly as it appeared in the wake of the news that the first case of Ebola had arrived on American shores, Ebola panic has largely disappeared from the American media, and from the minds and the rhetoric of American politicians:

A few short weeks ago, Ebola was public enemy No. 1.

About 1,000 people were being monitored by health officials. Several schools in Texas and Ohio shut down because of a single patient who boarded a plane. A cruise ship was refused permission to dock in Cozumel, off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. President Obama appointed an Ebola “czar.” Polls showed a majority of Americans were concerned that Ebola would spread out of control in the U.S.

On Tuesday, a fully recovered Dr. Craig Spencer was released from Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. The U.S. was now Ebola-free for the first time since Sept. 5 — a milestone that barely seemed to register with a once-frenzied public.

How did we get here from there?

Angst and anxiety gave way to calm as the days ticked by and no new patients were diagnosed. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities upped their game after Thomas Eric Duncan’s arrival at a Dallas emergency room revealed major gaps in the public health system.

“It’s hard to say definitively why the public thinks anything, but this is a welcome return to normalcy,” said Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at UC Irvine.

Spencer was the ninth person in the United States to be treated for Ebola and the eighth to survive. The only fatality was Duncan, who contracted the virus in his native Liberia.

(…)

When Duncan first sought care at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on Sept. 25, the emergency room staff failed to make the correct diagnosis, delaying necessary care by three days. After two of his nurses became infected, medical workers openly questioned the CDC’s advice on protective gear and other protocols. In cases where quarantines were imposed, it became clear that few had considered the logistics of providing food or disposing of trash for those affected.

Panic began to spread.

“October was a rough month for stigma and fear,” said Doug Henry, a medical anthropologist at the University of North Texas in Denton. “The cruise ship that was denied entry into a port, kids who weren’t welcome at school, parents who kept their own kids home — things got really bad here in Dallas.”

To further complicate matters, the crisis occurred in the home stretch of the midterm election campaign. Some Democrats accused Republicans of stoking Ebola fears for political advantage.

Quite honestly, I think that last factor played a large role in how the Ebola story played out over the course of the six weeks or so that began with Duncan’s diagnosis and Dr. Spencer’s release from Bellevue Hospital. Yes, there were plenty of examples of mis-steps that were made by health authorities in responding to the first ever case of Ebola “in the wild” in the United States. In all honesty, Duncan probably should have been admitted to the hospital when he first showed up at Texas Presbyterian Hospital with a fever, which seems to be the first sign that someone may be infected with the virus, given the fact that he had just arrived from one of the nations in the Ebola hot zone. For whatever reason, though, this information had not been properly communicated from the intake nurses at the hospital to the physician(s) who ultimately evaluated Duncan that day. Quite possibly, had he been admitted and tested that day Duncan’s treatment would have gone far differently and he could be alive today, Instead, he was sent home only to return a few days later with more severe symptoms and it was, likely far too late in the progression of the disease to do much of anything for him. There also appear to have been mistakes made in connection with Duncan’s treatment, either in the initial protocols from the Centers For Disease Control or in how they were carried out under the pressure of actually treating an Ebola case, that led to two nurses being infected with Ebola, In both of those cases, Nina Pham and Amber Ray Vinson, the symptoms were caught early thankfully but not before Vinson had traveled and created the concern that she had potentially exposed countless others to the disease. As I noted at the time, all of this did raise some obvious concerns about how the disease was being handled, but the answer was not to panic, but to figure out what went wrong and fix it so that it doesn’t happen again.

Fortunately, for both Pham and Vinson, they reported their symptoms early enough that they could be admitted and aggressive treatment applied, Meanwhile, though, the fact that they had been infected helped to spread a sense of panic among the media that caused public health authorities to react in often ridiculous ways. On more than one occasion, for example, people who had had no actual contact with these women were asked to stay home from work or school because, well, there was no rational reason for the request other than “concern” from people who were obviously getting their information from a media that seemed to be interested in spreading misinformation more than it was in actually spreading facts. The CDC and other groups, meanwhile, responded as they should have, by modifying their protocols, establishing rules to better screen people arriving in the United States from the Ebola hot zone, and modifying how the health care system as a whole would react in the event a positive Ebola case was found again. In the end, though, after Duncan, Pham, and Vincent, the only other positive Ebola case to date has been that of Dr. Spencer, While Spencer’s case raised a lot of concerns because it was happening in the middle of America’s largest city, it ended up being handled exactly as planned, with Spencer’s treatment successfully concluded and the people who may have had contact with him set to be out of their incubation periods soon, with the only exception to that being the last group of people who treated him at Bellevue Hospital. Once they are out of incubation, though, there will be nobody in the United States under observation for possible Ebola infection, or under treatment for the virus itself.

If the media engaged in no small degree of panic mongering over Ebola, though, there was one group that went even further, and that would be the political class. It wasn’t surprising, I suppose that conservative pundits on cable news and online would use the Ebola story as a cudgel to attack the Obama Administration, but the fact that in many cases they were doing so while simultaneously ignoring science or seemingly making things (such as the idea that Ebola had become airborne like the common cold or the flu) up out of whole cloth, We saw such pandering in the form of calls for travel bans that every recognized medical and public health expert said would do more harm than good in fighting the disease at its source, in the form of efforts to equate the C.D.C. response to Ebola with the  problems that developed with the launch of the Affordable Care Act last October, and in the form of politicians with actual backgrounds in medicine who were saying things they shouldn’t known better than to say. The political response hit its peak, though, in mid-October when Governor’s Cuomo and Christie, one running for re-election and the other thinking of running for President, announced that anyone returning to the U.S. via an airport in their jurisdiction would be quarantined until it was clear they were not infected. Ultimately, the policy was modified to some degree, but not before it swept up a Doctors Without Borders nurse named Kaci Hickcox up and landed her in quarantine in a tent at a Newark hospital. Hickcox was rather outspoken about her confinement and continued her fight after being allowed to return to her home in Maine where another Governor up for re-election, Paul LePage initially attempted to place her under quarantine only to be rebuffed by a state trial court Judge, Hickcox has now passed her incubation period and did not develop any signs of the disease.

The fact that all of this happened in the context of a closely fought election campaign surely contributed to the extent to which political partisans used it as a political cudgel, and the extent to which politicians such as LePage, Christie, and Cuomo, along with Governors in states such as Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, and California, rallied behind the idea of quarantining people who showed absolutely no signs of being a threat to public health and of imposing simplistic solutions like a travel ban even though it was clear that such an idea would do more harm than good. As I noted at the time, that was a policy that raised significant civil liberties concerns. That’s how politics works, after all. I suppose the only good thing we can say is that the outbreak wasn’t worse than it actually turned out to be because then the pandering would have been out in full force and there’s no telling what powers politicians may have tried to assume for themselves,  If nothing else, I suppose we should be happy that the reaction to the Ebola crisis wasn’t worse than it actually turned out to be.

None of this is to say that we should let our guard down, of course. Someone could walk into an Emergency Room this afternoon with a fever and a history of having been in western Africa recently, and we could end up with another positive Ebola case. What we’ve learned over the past six weeks, though, is that we have the resources to deal with those cases if we act promptly and properly and, most of all calmly. What didn’t help the process along at all, though, was the hyperpartisanship fueled politicization of the crisis, or the pandering from politicians looking at polls and election returns. Under different circumstances, the kinds of policies that those emotion-laden motives tend to lead to could have done a lot more harm than good.

H/T: Kevin Drum

FILED UNDER: Health, Health Care, Media, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    What happened was that the ebola “crisis” served its political purpose, which was to enable the right wing BS machine to frighten the Fox faithful and whip them into a frenzy , so they could run to the polls and vote against the black man in White House, who wasn’t doing enough to protect them against the grreatest plague history has has ever known.

    Now that the “crisis” has served its purpose, and now that said black man handled the problem in a cool, professional manner, the right wing BS machine has moved on.

  2. legion says:

    Once the GOP got back into power, the “liberal media” didn’t need it any more. Expect a relapse in summer of 2016 though…

  3. Mikey says:

    @stonetools: Turns out the GOP didn’t need the outbreak they were hoping for, they won control of the Senate anyway. So absent political usefulness, the Ebola “crisis” has dropped off the radar completely.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    It was absolutely amazing how it dropped off the radar. I’ve been trying to find good sources that are tracking what’s going on in Africa, which is where we should REALLY be going nuts about. From the little I’ve gleaned, Liberia may be starting to get things under control, but Sierra Leone is still having a high growth of cases.

    I’m afraid this is going to end along a rather cynical course: the disease will finally die down in Africa when in the countries that have broken health care systems everyone who could have caught it is either immune or dead. (Other African countries with better health care and tracking systems seem to keeping new cases under control.) We’ll have some potential Ebola vaccines in the pipeline and (hopefully) some new medical equipment that will be brought into play the next time Ebola flares up again. And we’ll still not do anything about Ebola until the next time we have a large outbreak, in which case US media and politicians will again milk the game for all it’s worth.

  5. wr says:

    It;s obvious that the GOP politicians who were screaming doom were all doing it cynically and for electoral gain — but what about their tools and puppets who posted here? What about JKB and Jenos and all the rest who were panicking and weeping and gnashing their teeth about how we were all going to die because of that incompetent in the White House and who were demandings that we shut down all overseas flights just in case?

    These people are not paid stooges of the RNC. They post this stuff for free.

    So I guess my question is: Were they deliberating spreading fear to help their politicial party? Or are they such gullible losers that they were panic-stricken for exactly as long as their leaders told them to be afraid, and then simply forgot about it once the daily messages stopped coming?

    I’m not sure which idea makes them look worse… but I sure wish they would see how completely transparent they are and would now slink away in shame.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @wr: I’ll take “gullible losers” for $15, Alex….

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @wr: Conservatives believe their own bullstuff.

    Liberal talk radio doesn’t work because liberals don’t need to attend services every week to confirm what they believe. Apparently Reverend Rush isn’t doing Ebola this week. If there’s another case in the US the Rev will work it back into the routine and the usual suspects will be back here in full, “I told you so!” mode.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    Diaper sales are down…Jack, John426, bill, JKB, Jenos…hopefully they have some left over for the next make-believe emergency.

  9. superdestroyer says:

    For all of the snark above, an additional reason is that few reporters seem interested in going to Western Africa to report on Ebola there. It is receiving similar reporting in the media to the civil war in Syria and the ISIS campaign in Iraq. Without reporters, the MSM is not interested in the story.

  10. Rafer Janders says:

    @wr:

    So I guess my question is: Were they deliberating spreading fear to help their politicial party? Or are they such gullible losers that they were panic-stricken for exactly as long as their leaders told them to be afraid, and then simply forgot about it once the daily messages stopped coming?

    That “or” should be an “and.”

  11. al-Ameda says:

    Basically, until the recent elections Republicans were attempting to blame the president for (1) ignoring Ebola in West Africa, and (2) doing nothing about the widespread outbreak of Ebola here in the United States. So, what happened here in dumbed down America? Well, more people died in OJ Simpson’s murder rampage than died from Ebola.

    Now that the elections went the Republican way, we can get back to our regularly scheduled “both sides do it” portion of main stream media news reporting.

  12. wr says:

    To be fair, Jenos did explain on another thread that he was completely right about Ebola killing 90% of Americans because Lena Dunham’s book was icky and because liberals don’t like nuclear power because they only care about scenery, not people. So clearly he’s still fighting for a way to justify his panic, even though there’s more chance any of us will be killed by Lena Dunham than by Ebola.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @wr: Also, considering that the Republican base is composed of people who haven’t yet figured out that evolution is real. Except when they want to scream hysterically about Ebola mutating into an air-spread disease. Then, by gum, the damn thing mutates like something out of a 1950s attack of the mutant ants movie.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    @wr:

    To be fair, Jenos did explain on another thread that he was completely right about Ebola killing 90% of Americans because Lena Dunham’s book was icky and because liberals don’t like nuclear power because they only care about scenery, not people.

    Lena Dunham? Let’s keep it real here.

    I’ve heard that it was President Obama’s intention to infect conservative households with Ebola, and once these infected people died or were taken to hospitals, teams of United Nations troops would go in and confiscate firearms.

    You have to admit, it could have worked.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @superdestroyer: The panic and fear mongering were based on reporting from Dallas and New York, not West Africa.

  16. charles austin says:

    The Ebola outbreak in West Africa remains serious. I don’t really expect seriousness out of Big Media or politicians of any particular stripe for that matter. Deal with it over there or deal with it over here. Those are the choices available.

  17. charles austin says:

    Even Ron Klain said today that he expects more cases in the US.

  18. Grewgills says:

    @superdestroyer:

    It is receiving similar reporting in the media to the civil war in Syria and the ISIS campaign in Iraq. Without reporters, the MSM is not interested in the story.

    Those have also served their political purpose, so the shouting has died down.

  19. Neil Hudelson says:

    @charles austin:

    Yup. The International Community has dropped the ball in general. Great Britain and the United States have both done some things, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the type of aid that could have helped control this immediately.

  20. Peter says:

    Why assume the dropoff is political? There are no active cases in the United States, only two people had become infected in this country, and with the exception of Thomas Eric Duncan everyone treated in a US hospital made a full and fairly quick recovery.

  21. steve says:

    The news from Africa is that the spread is slowing. Current thought is that most of the spread was caused by handling of dead bodies for funeral rites. A massive campaign is underway to change those and it appears to be working. It looks as though experimental vaccines will be arriving early 2015.

    It would be nice if the competent, highly professional efforts of the CDC, local health officials and most of the hospital personnel was acknowledged.

    Steve

  22. wr says:

    @Peter: “There are no active cases in the United States, only two people had become infected in this country, and with the exception of Thomas Eric Duncan everyone treated in a US hospital made a full and fairly quick recovery.”

    Yup. Which was pretty much the case when all the right wing idiots were running around shrieking that Obama was going to personally give them Ebola.

  23. anjin-san says:

    @wr:

    To be fair, Jenos did explain on another thread

    I think Fast & Furious was in there somewhere too. A perfect storm of wing nut delusion. Bill Ayres and Saul Alinsky must be somehow involved as well.

  24. bill says:

    sure, obama sheet his pants over the mismanagement by the cdc and hired another “czar” to appease his favorite republicans….brilliant.
    can he at least get this “czar” off the public dole- he’s not needed.

  25. JKB says:

    Well, the federal government was refusing to protect the lives of American so the State governors stepped in. They went a bit extreme at first but there has been no news that the home quarantines have been lifted. People just wanted to trust that the “officials” were doing what was necessary rather than risking American lives for some world political agenda. Once Obama was pushed aside and to stay relevant the CDC had to get their act together, things settled down. It all could have been far less dramatic if President Dum Dum hadn’t lived up to his nickname.

    And I can confirm, the ERs are checking for Ebola and conducting blood cultures to confirm. I went to the ER and had to sign some notices about “EVD” which federal government is the newspeak for Ebola. The paper never defined the acronym. You had to be up on the government lies to know what they meant.

  26. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    I think you guys are over analyzing this. The concern lasted about 3 or 4 weeks. The community memory of the American public is…3 or 4 weeks. Forgetting about Ebola happened at about the same relative time frame as forgetting about the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram did.

    We can’t keep worrying about this stuff. The Kenyan jihadist is always at work plotting more trouble for Rocky and Bullwinkle America, so we need to keep current.

  27. al-Ameda says:

    @JKB:

    Well, the federal government was refusing to protect the lives of American so the State governors stepped in.

    LOL!

  28. lounsbury says:

    @JKB: allowing that you are a dim-witted provincial cretin,

    I went to the ER and had to sign some notices about “EVD” which federal government is the newspeak for Ebola. The paper never defined the acronym. You had to be up on the government lies to know what they meant.

    EVD as the acronym for Ebola Virus Disease is a medical sector acronym that one finds in papers on the disease, private, etc. Nothing your federal government invented at all.

    But I suppose for the cowardly pants-wetting paranoid crowd, no ridiculous assumption is too much.

  29. JKB says:

    @lounsbury:

    So why no spelling out what the acronym means when presenting it in literature designed to inform the non-medical public?

    When someone purposely does not identify an acronym in the context of the document, especially, when the document isn’t designed for in specialty consumption, I always suspect why they are being abstruse and usually find it is purposeful dissembling. I do note that the CDC does not use EVD, but rather uses the term “Ebola”, in their public communications. And what was wrong with the more descriptive and accurate Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever?

  30. lounsbury says:

    @JKB: Well since we have not seen your sign, it is rather hard to say, isn’t it? One might well consider the idea that whatever you saw was aimed at the medical professionals, and not at paranoid non-medical people scared of their own shadow.

    Your utterly childish paranoia aside, even if it were aimed at the public, it is all too easy for professionals of any kind, under time stress, to unconsciously fall into use of jargon and acronyms. Being deliberately “abstruse” takes an effort. Unconsciously using professional jargon does not.

    Of course since you are rather evidently deeply wed to a paranoid vision of the world and your own government, you’re likely to come to different conclusions, which we shall no doubt have fun mocking for their sheer irrationality.

    As for the use of EVD, presumably the more accurate term is what the medical professionals feel best describes the disease as a complex, which fever does not per se.

    But what is more ‘accurate’ well that’s really their call, not yours, eh? Given your grasp of the disease is quite… shallow.

  31. wr says:

    @JKB: Shorter JKB: “I love a dictator, as long as he’s Republican.”

  32. anjin-san says:

    @JKB:

    So why no spelling out what the acronym means when presenting it in literature designed to inform the non-medical public?

    Well, you were standing there with the form in your hand, why didn’t you ask them if you were curious?

  33. JKB says:

    @anjin-san:

    Actually, I was sitting there in pain and I knew what EVD meant. And didn’t care since the primary symptom of EVD is having been exposed to someone with EVD. All the other symptoms, until you reach the break down of blood barriers are common symptoms to a long list of common and common maladies. Fatigue, muscle aches, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.

  34. anjin-san says:

    @JKB:

    Ah, so you are just enjoying a good rant. I see.

  35. JKB says:
  36. anjin-san says:

    @JKB:

    Reports: Third Ebola patient headed to Nebraska Medical Center

    Maybe you should hide under the bed, or drink a fifth of scotch, or whatever it is you do when you are told to be frightened.

  37. Monala says:

    @JKB: Probably because medical professionals, like professionals in many fields, forget that other people don’t always understand their jargon.

    My health care provider has moved to sending you test results via email. You open the email up and get a bunch of codes such as (making the letters up because I can’t think of an exact one right now): TDS 7.4, HCL 9.0 and so on. So yeah, I made those up, but that’s basically what I get – a bunch of letters followed by a bunch of numbers, with no explanation as to what they mean. I have to Google the acronyms to figure out what I was tested for and what the test results indicate. Makes me wonder why they don’t explain that the first letter/number means, for example, that my blood sugar is in a good range, and the second means my cholesterol is good; instead, they leave it to me to figure it out. So I’m not surprised that they might provide literature to patients that uses their acronym for Ebola.

    To be fair, if any of the numbers are concerning to my doctor, she’ll call personally to let me know. So the fact that I’m getting an incomprehensible email rather than a phone call means everything is OK.

  38. Argon says:

    @JKB:
    Dude! Did you even read what you cited?

    The patient was infected in Sierra Leone. He presented symptoms while still in Sierra Leone. He is a permanent legal resident of the US so they’re flying him from Sierra Leone to the US for better treatment here. The biocontainment unit of the destination hospital has successfully treated other patients in the past and is full prepared to accept him.

    That’s a *good* thing.

  39. JKB says:

    @Argon:

    I was just pointing out Ebola, or should I obfuscate and say EVD, is back in the news.

    @Monala:

    Actually they provided me with documents to sign. I would have inquired if I hadn’t known what it meant. Just as I inquired when they showed up to draw blood with extra vials that looked like a vampire’s shot glass.

  40. anjin-san says:

    @JKB:

    I was just pointing out Ebola, or should I obfuscate and say EVD, is back in the news.

    So is Kim Kardashian’s butt. Are either of them a topic that merits a great deal of attention? If you are concerned about public health issues, tell your party to stop keeping millions upon millions of Americans from having health care.

  41. JKB says:

    Perhaps EVD has fallen from the headlines because after the issue became a topic in the US, even the WHO, much less the CDC and NIH, could continue to ignore it. So perhaps they’ve put away their childish efforts to support the tobacco companies and big Pharma with their fight again e-cigarettes as well as the Quixote push of global “warming”, the latter having actual windmills to tilt at.

    My Times column is on the World Health Organisation’s odd priorities: its early complacency about ebola, while it attacks a new technology that saves the lives of smokers by getting them off tobacco, and obsesses about climate change:

  42. grumpy realist says:

    Mali is having a new outbreak, but they’re also trying some of the experimental vaccines on their healthcare workers.