Sometimes you hear about a problem, and you worry that we are not doing anything about it. “Something must be done!” you think.
And then you see that there is a congressional hearing on that very subject. “Oh good,” you think. “I don’t have to sit around ineffectually worrying and muttering that Something Must Be Done. Congress will handle that from now on.”
On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations held an emergency hearing on the Ebola crisis. That makes one less thing for me to worry about and gather a lot of frightening misinformation on. Now Congress will be worrying about it for me. What’s an elected representative for, anyway?
Broadly speaking, the stories about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has claimed more than 900 lives fall into two categories: compassionate concern at this humanitarian crisis and wild-eyed terror about threats to the United States from people who think this might be the End Times.
I have been living mostly in the latter category. And I am not alone. “Am I the only one who thinks this Ebola virus thing sounds a little TOO similar to the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie?” tweeted @kristenjadeQ. “Im calling it right now that the ebola outbreak is how the zombie apocalypse will start,” concurred @I_The_King_.
And the original tweets included emoji, so you know this is real.
Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing touched on similar themes. Reps. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) — who seemed excited by the many opportunities that an Ebola outbreak offered for fresh criticisms of the Obama administration — grilled two panels of experts, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Tom Frieden, Bisa Williams of the State Department and Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse.
It was all the panic, none of the emojis.
Wolf said he had been “trying to understand just what if anything the U.S. was doing” but that “no one could tell me what action would be taken.” And furthermore, the “CDC had no available registry of medical facilities capable of treating Ebola patients in the United States … There are no quarantines or travel restrictions in place.” But “this should be a very top priority of the White House.”
Clearly, this is a man who has seen “Outbreak.”
“We can stop Ebola,” Frieden said. But “we have to stop it at the source in Africa.” Ebola is just “one of several viral hemorrhagic fevers,” but it is “most feared … in part because it had a movie made about it.”
From his testimony, the panel learned that Ebola has an incubation period of eight to 10 days, up to 21, and that it cannot be transmitted through water or food. Also, Frieden said, Ebola is like fire. If you do not put out every last ember, it can flare up again: “One contact not traced … one health-care worker not protected … each of those lapses can result in another … flare of the outbreak.”
You deal with this by isolating patients, interviewing them to figure out whom they have been in contact with and following up with those contacts. It’s straight-forward, but there’s little margin for error.
In the meantime, avoid contact with bush meat and bats, which might help spread the virus. (The idea that bats contain Ebola is like telling me that spiders contain drowning, or that if I climb to a very great height I’ll be forced to deliver a speech in public. You don’t need to tell me twice.)
“What’s so concerning about Ebola is that the stakes are so high … a single lapse could be fatal,” Frieden added, just when I was starting to be a little reassured. “It is certainly possible that we could have Ebola … here in the U.S. … but we’re confident that there will not be a large Ebola outbreak in the U.S.”
The key is “standard infection control, rigorously applied.”
Or I could just never leave the house again.
Then Smith launched into a litany of questions.
“Is there any disproportionality in results when it comes to whether or not we’re talking about a frail elderly person, a woman, a man, a child, a woman who happens to be pregnant, or any of the other — someone who has a compromised immune system? What has been the MO of that, if you could?” he said.
Also, “To get to those treatment centers is a long trek, very often, the ride … if the person is very sick, other persons could come in contact with him or her … In dealing with someone who is dying, especially in that part of the world, there is a psychological trauma with being alone, so it almost exacerbates the spread of the disease because people want to be around, near, touching, when that person is highly infectious, that’s when family members and others might get it … if you could speak to that?”
Also “The lack of testing, testing areas … it’s my understanding … especially since this masks and parallels, it looks like other things, but it’s Ebola, but unless you get that test back — how long does it take to do the test? And again, is there any way of standing up labs?”
Also “how does a country now attract or retain health-care workers who say ‘if I go into that arena, the prospects of me getting this are very real?’ Is there enough protective equipment, you know, the gowns, plastic …?”
“Finally … there are promising drugs…” (here he suggested a couple of drugs) “the FDA has a hold on i t… I’m wondering if there was any way to accelerate … what about accelerating it? Is there an effort to do that?”
Also finally, “And my final question is about the safety of airline flight. Many people have contacted my office to ascertain how safe is it to fly perhaps sitting next to somebody who’s maybe changed flights en route to the United States, coming from Liberia, say, for example … are the efforts at the airports … are they up to the task of detecting at point of embarkation passengers who might be sick from Ebola?”
This led to one of the highlights of the hearing, in which, in response to something in this series of questions, Frieden told Smith that “You’re not likely to get it from someone who is not sick with Ebola.”
So that’s good. We can rule that out, at least.
Smith doubled down on the airline question, wanting to know, “is there a way of advising airline personnel particularly including flight attendants who might be in very close proximity to the whole … plane and there could be someone on there? Is the CDC advising … airlines like Delta with flights to the region?”
“Yes,” Frieden said, “we have provided advice to the airlines.”
To the State Department, Smith suggested maybe a “benign psi-ops” effort. “I know that radio is being used,” Smith said. “It seems to me that more needs to be done.”
It seemed to everyone that more needed to be done.
Bass wanted to know about all the reporting, because “it’s not helped when it’s reported that one individual had a miraculous turnaround and was able to walk to the ambulance … That leads to the belief that there’s some kind of cure out there that we know about that we’re not sharing.”
Wolf continued to take this as an opportunity to be upset with the Obama administration. He wanted dates of all the diplomatic cables so that he could know in case anyone had dropped the ball. “I’d like to know when the cables were sent … how high in the State Department were the concerns raised, at what level and at what time.”‘ He also wanted to know “what other donor nations have gotten involved” and “what exactly are they doing” so that they could be held accountable as well.
France and Britain had been involved, Frieden said.
“Has the White House asked them to be involved?” Wolf asked. “Has there been a formal request by the White House to the heads of those governments that they participate to help your effort?” Also, what about “the Chinese government that is invested in soccer stadiums in Africa”?
He also suggested that “if someone wanted to raise a question, call somebody, do something, had a great idea, who do they call? … is there one person? Don’t you need ONE PERSON, that, is there one person in one place, one number you can call?”
Make that two. One can just field congressional inquiries.
“How accurate is the data?” asked Smith, who also doubled down on the idea to have the FDA maybe “re-look at that” where drugs were concerned.
So, in a word, it was about as reassuring as you would hope. “I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it has an atmosphere of ‘Apocalypse Now’ in it,” said Isaacs, of the situation in Liberia.
“Ebola is out of control in West Africa and we are starting to see panic now, around the world,” Isaacs went on. “I don’t know about you folks, I look at the Drudge Report, they drive a lot of panic. There’s a guy in New York. There’s a woman in England. There’s six people have been tested in the United States. There are reports that there are 340 Peace Corps workers coming back.”
Do not panic and freak out. People at high levels are panicking and freaking out on your behalf.
Although I know that this is not highly contagious, I will be hiding somewhere away from all human contact, swathed in an unflattering plastic biohazard suit, until someone convinces me that it is safe. (Is it ever really safe, though?)