Nurse Amber Vinson and the CDC: If These are Medical Professionals, We Are Doomed

Posted on October 17, 2014

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Is it just me, or does anyone else out there have the déjà-vu sensation that we are watching a bad horror movie unfold? Twelve Monkeys, or Z Nation, or Contagion, perhaps? At any rate, we are trapped in that sort of horror movie where the characters all do patently stupid things just to move the plot along, since we know no one would do such things in real life.

Right?

Wrong. Nurse Amber Vinson cared for Ebola victim Thomas Duncan, who died in Dallas. Her co-worker Nina Pham had already tested positive for Ebola infection. Ms. Vinson, visiting relatives in Cleveland at the time, was feeling ill and running a low-grade fever, and says she called the CDC several times with her concerns. The CDC assured her that her temperature of 99.5 F was within acceptable bounds. So she got on a crowded plane to fly back to Dallas.

WHAT THE HELL, PEOPLE??

I have compassion for the fact that Ms. Vinson became infected, but I cannot forgive her for the sheer recklessness and stupidity of even wanting to go visit relatives after having been in the same room with an Ebola patient. And I really cannot forgive her for having conscious concerns, enough to make several phone calls to the CDC, and then getting on a plane anyway. This is the stuff horror movies are made of.

And then we have the CDC itself, playing the incompetent government agency for our real-life movie. One would hope, since they are supposed to specialize in such things, that they would be the most vigilant, the most cautious, the most concerned with the possibility of contagion. But no. Here we apparently had a nurse who was known to have worked directly with an active and fatal Ebola case; who told the CDC that she felt ill and had an elevated temperature; and the CDC’s response? You’re okay to fly on a crowded plane, because your temperature does not meet our arbitrarily designated threshold of 100.4 degrees (but hey, you get a runner-up prize for having a temperature less than one degree short of the threshold). So sure, hop on the plane and have a nice flight.

Nurse Vinson should never have been allowed on a flight to Ohio in the first place; and she really, really should never have been allowed on another flight once she had the least little twinge of concern. I mean, come on, this is Ebola, for God’s sake. The fatality rate is more than twice as high as smallpox. Would you let someone who had been in a room with a smallpox victim, and now is feeling a bit queasy, onto a plane? I thought not.

Something else, CDC: I am sick of hearing your complacent platitudes. The truth about the danger of Ebola is apparent when one notices what you are saying out of the other side of your mouth. The Huffington Post reports on CDC Director Tom Frieden’s press conference:

“She should not have traveled on a commercial airline,” CDC director Tom Frieden told reporters…. Frieden said the nurse shouldn’t have flown because she was one of the 76 nurses who had cared for Duncan, all of whom are under observation. He added that there was probably little risk of other people on her flight contracting Ebola, which is spread via contact with bodily fluids, but the CDC is nevertheless reaching out to other passengers…. “the risk to any around that individual on the plane would have been extremely low,” Frieden said. “But we are going and will always put in extra measures of safety.”

Now the government is locking down public travel for the other 70-odd health professionals who have worked with Ebola victims so far. Thanks. Better late than never, I guess.

The conventional wisdom on how Ebola is transmitted, and the repeated mantra of “low risk” and “spread via contact with bodily fluids” would have us thinking that Ebola, while dangerous, is not that contagious, and that you practically have to wallow in an infected pool of vomit to catch it. But if that’s true… and if it’s mainly caregivers who are at a higher risk of infection… then how is it that new cases are doubling every 20 days in western Africa? Are all of those people caregivers?

No, I suspect that Ebola is more easily transmitted than we give it credit for. I don’t suspect that it is literally airborne, but consider what happens with an ordinary sneeze, with wet particles misting about; or consider how flu can so easily spread from surface contacts. Do we really think Ebola cannot spread this way? Actually, virologists admit that Ebola can survive for several hours on surfaces, although… again… they say the risk of transmission this way is “low.” Ha! Would you be comfortable reaching for a doorknob or handrail that a known Ebola patient just touched with his bare hand? I wouldn’t.

Lila’s rules on risk management: when a risk is low but the consequences would be disastrous, take all precautions. The focus is on the consequences, not on the fact that the risk is small. That is what is known in my book as: complacency. “It won’t happen to me.”

Just keep these statistics in mind:

Smallpox mortality rate: 30%.

Plaque mortality rate: 66% (in the US, pre-antibiotics)

Ebola mortality rate: 70%.

and…

Ebola infections are doubling every 15-20 days in Liberia, and every 30-40 days in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Nope. not worth the risk, no matter how small you might think it is.

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