First off, there’s no reason to think that the one case of Ebola in the United States is anything but contained. After an initially bungled response from a Dallas hospital (which sent home the patient, Thomas Duncan, when he first sought care late last week), health workers are now taking every precaution to prevent the spread of the disease. Still, Dallas isn’t that far from Arkansas, so we’d be remiss not to follow events down there.
People are scared, understandably — especially parents. Among the people whom Duncan has been in direct contact with since he flew to the US from Liberia are five children who attend public school in the city, says The Dallas Morning News. None of them have displayed any symptoms, nor has anyone else whom Duncan has been in contact with. His family, however, is under quarantine and is being closely monitored.
About 100 potentially exposed people are being contacted by health officials, but that’s only out of an abundance of caution:
The state Department of Health Services…said that number should drop as potential contacts are ruled out.
“We’re starting with this very wide net, including people who have had even brief encounters with the patient or the patient’s home,” department spokeswoman Carrie Williams said. “The number will drop as we focus in on those whose contact may represent a potential risk of infection.”
Thompson sought to downplay the higher number of possible contacts Thursday morning and said interviewing them was simply routine.
“If you go to a restaurant and people got sick and there were 50 people who were there, we’d have to interview all 50,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anyone else got sick. If two got sick, we’d have to contact the other 48. In this case there’s possible contact with the family members. But no one has any symptoms.”
It’s a good thing that officials have identified 100 potential contacts; here’s an explanation about how “contact tracing” will work in the coming days. It’s also a stark and sad contrast with the situation in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where underdeveloped healthcare systems and under-resourced hospitals have been entirely overwhelmed by Ebola victims. Frightening as the disease is, we’ve got the capacity in this country to prevent its spread. Hopefully, we’ll translate that fear into a sense of urgency to address the West African epidemic at its roots, rather than blanket panic.
For background on the West African epidemic, read Vox’s piece debunking myths about Ebola and this Q&A from the NYT about the likelihood of the disease spreading within the US (very low). The Arkansas Department of Health also has information on its website, including guidelines for businesses, colleges and healthcare facilities and workers in the event any cases should surface here.
Here’s a press conference this afternoon updating the public on the response from health officials, government and Dallas public schools: