The death of America’s first confirmed Ebola victim on Wednesday, Thomas Eric Duncan, alarmed the public and sparked new concerns over whether the United States is sufficiently prepared to handle a potential outbreak.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, President Obama acknowledged the failure of the doctors and nurses at Texas Presbyterian Hospital who bungled Duncan’s case by failing to diagnose him with the deadly virus when he first sought medical treatment after arriving in the United States from Liberia.
“As we saw in Dallas, we don’t have a lot of margin for error. If we don’t follow protocols and procedures that are put in place, then we’re putting folks in our communities at risk,” Obama said.
Over the last few days, state and federal officials have been ramping up safeguards in an effort to quell any potential outbreak. Connecticut declared a state of emergency and the Obama administration announced that five major airports would begin screening passengers to detect any possible Ebola victims.
Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, held a press briefing Wednesday afternoon to highlight the new screening measures being taken by the Customs and Border Patrol agency at airports, which includes questioning passengers from Ebola-stricken countries, taking their temperatures and monitoring them for other symptoms.
Still, Frieden warned that the United States couldn’t completely eliminate the risk of an outbreak. “We can’t get the risk to zero,” he said. He added, “We remain convinced we can contain the outbreak in West Africa. If we fail to do that, it will be a very difficult situation, and it could become a long-term risk to the United States.”
He also poured cold water on suggestions from a handful of lawmakers to tighten travel restrictions on countries stricken with Ebola, saying it would only make the threat of an international outbreak even greater—since it would only make it more difficult for medical workers to get in and out of the infected regions.
The ongoing Ebola crisis reached the United States just one month after a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General warned that the agency was “ill-prepared” to respond to a large-scale health emergency.
The auditors flagged DHS for how it had spent some of the $47 million Congress appropriated to prepare for such a disaster. The IG said DHS had invested in an unnecessarily large mount –16 million—of surgical masks without justifying the quantity, they also found tons of expired hand sanitizer and more than 80 percent of medications they had purchased are already set to expire next year.
The IG concluded that DHS did not “develop and implement stockpile replenishment plans or inventory controls to monitor stockpiles, have adequate contract oversight processes, or ensure compliance with Department guidelines,” adding that because of that, “DHS has no assurance that the supplies on hand remain effective.”
Those early revelations likely contributed to the loss of faith Americans have in the government’s ability to handle a potential outbreak. A new Gallup poll found that just 25 percent say they are confident that the federal government could handle an Ebola outbreak.
Meanwhile, others are apparently taking measures into their own hands. The Huffington Post reported that some people have been stockpiling their own Ebola “survival” gear. One Chicago-based emergency preparedness company said it has already sold more than 100 "Extended Infection Protection" emergency supply kits since the first case of Ebola in the U.S. was confirmed last week.
Still, experts agree that the likelihood of an outbreak in the United States is not very likely.
“We have only one case in the U.S. [Mr. Duncan, who died this morning] and there are many things the government can do and is doing to protect Americans. So at the moment I think widespread fear in the U.S. is probably not very helpful,” Brookings Senior Fellow Ross Hammond, director of the Center on Social Dynamics and Policy, said on Joel Riley Morning Show.
CDC officials and others stress that if their efforts to quell the outbreak in West Africa fail—the virus will likely spread in other parts of the world.
Some believe the global response to contain the deadly virus has already failed. On Wednesday, the president of the World Bank, Jim Kim, admitted that the global community had “failed miserably” to respond to the Ebola virus—which has so far resulted in more than 3,800 deaths in West Africa.
“It’s late. It’s really late,” Kim told the Guardian. “We should have done so many things. Healthcare systems should have been built. There should have been monitoring when the first cases were reported. There should have been an organized response.”
He added that world leaders should create a global $20 billion health fund that would be put toward responding to international pandemics.
His remarks came as Secretary of State John Kerry called on the international community to provide more assistance in the global effort to fight Ebola in West Africa.
So far, the United States has sent 350 troops and 130 other U.S. workers to the region—and as many as 4,000 troops could eventually be dispatched. Meanwhile, The United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and a spate of international aid groups are sending resources to the region.
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