How Prepared Is America for Ebola?

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Word was given recently that Nina Pham, a Dallas nurse previously ill with Ebola, has recovered from her illness, is gaining strength, and was released from a Maryland hospital. Her blood tests have all come back negative for the virus, and on Friday, she met with President Obama.

This is likely in part to help with national confidence and to control any rising panic in the United States, where many are concerned that the outbreak could get out of hand after a handful have become infected, most having visited West Africa, where the disease has killed more than 4,500 in the last 10 months. New York City saw its first reported case in Dr. Craig Spencer, who was hospitalized on Thursday and placed in quarantine.

The U.S. government has taken some aggressive steps recently to outline and emphasize its preparedness. Public concern has been waxing and waning with each new piece of news about Ebola, in such a way as to truly be representative of Jon Stewart’s satire on the panic:

On order to get a clear picture of what the response may be moving forward, let’s look at recent updates on efforts by the U.S. government: what has and hasn’t been done, and what still needs to be implemented to improve the readiness of America’s medical and government systems for any increase in the severity of the disease.

Perhaps the most recent and salient analysis of government action has been the review from the House Oversight Committee on the Obama administration’s response to Ebola so far. One of the largest critiques dealt with Obama’s choice for Ebola czar, Ron Klain, who the president trusts and who some say has the administrative and governmental experience to be effective in the role.

Others argue that his lack of experience in the medical field makes him a poor choice for the position. “I’m just at a loss why he would pick somebody without a health care background,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) during the hearing. When he asked Nicole Lurie, a doctor and the assistant secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, why she wasn’t chosen, she argued that Ebola czar is not a role that demands a doctor so much as an individual who is capable of handling government logistics.

Some say that Republicans are right to argue against allowing citizens to return to the U.S. from West Africa. While this can go back and forth as having cautionary merit or being unnecessarily strict with a distinct failure to aid American citizens out of perhaps unfounded fear, one thing is certain: New policy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) won’t hurt. It’s arguable that such guidelines should have been put in place long before now. The policy holds that those traveling out of West Africa from Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea will be monitored for 21 days following their return to the United States. This will begin as of October 27.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report on August 26 outlining steps that DHS had not taken correctly. That is something that should be comforting to many, as counterintuitive as that sounds. The ability to objectively self-evaluate and a willingness to outline failures and necessary measures means that these are problems that will hopefully be taken care of in time for if a real crisis takes place.

“DHS did not adequately conduct a needs assessment prior to purchasing PPE (personal protective equipment) and MCM (anti-viral) for pandemic preparedness. DHS did not effectively manage the inventory of pandemic preparedness supplies purchased,” reads the report, noting that the amounts of each were improperly decided, as were schedules for keeping this stockpile filled as needed.

Rather than react in consternation that such oversights were made, it’s more constructive to focus on the self-awareness present within the department to allow for preparative measures. The report found that “DHS has not effectively managed pandemic personal protective equipment and antiviral medical countermeasures,” offering 11 recommendations, which were mostly related to inventory.

Inventory aside, concerns are still in place regarding how two Dallas nurses with appropriate protective gear were exposed, and how one was allowed to travel via airplane after exposure to the virus, and with a slight fever.

A statement from Lurie displayed a great deal of positive rhetoric regarding national and local levels of health care preparation. “I can say with certainty that we are now more prepared for the range of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense) threats and other emerging infectious diseases, such as pandemic influenza, than at any point in our Nation’s history,” she said.

Many of her statements are comparative (i.e., local government has been strengthened compared to previous measures). That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s strong enough. However, that is the logical way to measure progress. Either way, her statements outline of a number of coordinated efforts that suggest government officials won’t be waiting for matters to worsen before working on improving readiness, and that can only be taken as a good thing.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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