Watching America’s response to the first case of Ebola discovered inside the United States was a bit like watching the aftermath of a natural disaster that was yet to occur. Admittedly, I was watching international news from a faraway land and then only in bits in the morning and evening so I may not have gotten the full flavor.
Our time away happened to coincide with the drama of the death of the poor man who came to Texas from Liberia only to die under the care of what some call the greatest health care system in the world.
The second-chance belated discovery of Ebola in his body triggered a generalized national anxiety that turned into national panic when he died and two nurses who cared for him developed Ebola.
Around this time there also was the physician who, upon returning home from caring for Ebola patients and after riding in the subway and going bowling, came down with the virus.
Meanwhile, actions were being put in place by public health and healthcare systems on high alert to protect and secure people from the possibility of contacting this dreadful disease.
Among the more constructive actions were the decisions to route returning Ebola victim caregivers through three airports and send troops into West Africa to build additional care facilities.
The two Texas nurses were transferred to arguably the best Ebola treatment centers in the world. In fact they were the U.S. facilities of choice for those American physicians, nurses and others who contracted Ebola in the infected West African countries.
The physician who by now was experiencing incredibly painful and debilitating symptoms in a specially designed isolation room had inadvertently and, I am sure innocently, frightened everyone who rode a subway in New York or bowled in a particular bowling alley.
The second nurse from Texas made the mistake of flying to another city to make plans for her upcoming wedding which caused the airline to disinfect its plane twice and the bridal shop to close for three weeks even though she was not contagious at the time of her flight or visit.
Politics vs. public health
Throughout this, public health professionals and physicians were trying to calm people with information and facts about the transfer of the virus. Yes, it was contagious but only through direct contact with bodily fluids during the symptomatic phases.
Even the President made an appearance to reassure people and announce the strategies to reduce exposure which included providing significant support to infected African countries in order to eliminate the virus at the source.
Whoops – big mistake! Like so many things in our country, Ebola instantly became politicized. Somewhere a political sharpie couldn’t let an opportunity to redirect efforts to solve a serious public health issue to placing blame on the President.
Such strategies are meant to generate more fear and soon persons attempting to get into the country, those illegal at the border and the professional health workers returning from West Africa, were seen as Ebola threats.
Recommendations and reassurances from those scientists and health professionals actually dealing with the threats on multiple fronts, including the development of a vaccine, were ignored.
That’s how the nurse returning from taking care of Ebola patients ended up in solitary confinement in a MASH-like tent with a toilet draped in black garbage bags. Her only means of communication was her smartphone which she used to shout at the world that she was well and did not belong in solitary confinement without as much as a television.
It’s not entirely clear to me why she was whisked away from the airport although I heard that she may have had an elevated temperature. That would seem appropriate except that, she never again registered an elevated temperature and never tested positive for Ebola. It may have been a better idea to retire the first thermometer gadget.
Just an aside, if they thought she had Ebola, why was she not put in a special isolation unit?
The governor of New Jersey insisted she was very sick and she insisted she was very well. Finally she got a lawyer and was released to her home in Maine where she stayed and monitored her temperature for the remaining weeks.
The governor of Maine placed a guard near her home to monitor her movements.
Many in the business of protecting the public said that there was no need to place persons without symptoms in solitary confinement. They went on to plead with the public not to vilify and punish caregivers because they might not care for Ebola patients in the future, a plea that was only honored by the President, at least publicly.
Yet at home and much to my surprise, I heard more criticism of the nurse who fought for her release than those who claimed Obama caused the Ebola threat. “She had an attitude” or “she should have stayed quiet” or “she should do what the government says.” Really, which government – U.S.A. or New Jersey?
One more time, fear trumped facts and we easily took away the civil rights of an innocent person because they represented what we fear. Seems to me this is a greater fear and there is no vaccine in sight.
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.