Ebola Just One Plane Ride From Hawaii

My husband and I are planning to go to Dallas and a few other places in Texas later this month, partly for business, partly for fun. So you can imagine our interest was more than piqued when news came down that the Ebola virus had been diagnosed in the U.S. for the first time — in Dallas.

Time to take a breath.

I watched the initial news conference and noticed a few things. Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Tom Frieden tried his best to be factual while attempting to preemptively tamper down alarmist speculation and prevent panic. For the most part, he succeeded.

But he avoided some increasingly pointed questions by reporters on a few things. One, whether the sick man was an American. Two, what airline transported him to the U.S. from Liberia. Also, and crucially, why was he sent home the first time he went to the hospital? Did he disclose that he’d recently come from Liberia?

It seems odd to duck the questions. Odd — and counterproductive — because in my experience as a reporter, it’s the worst thing to do. If reporters think someone is obfuscating, they try harder to dig up the answers.

Frieden repeatedly made the point that the patient was not showing symptoms and therefore not contagious during his flight. That is both true and reassuring. However, in my opinion, not naming the airline simply made it look like there was something to hide. The omission was unnecessary.

Of course, all or most of the answers were revealed quickly in the following days: the name and nationality of the patient, Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia; the fact that he was sent home even though he told a nurse he’d recently come to the U.S. from West Africa; and the alarming fact that even after he was brought back to the hospital two days later, the staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital were slow to act. It was a friend of Duncan’s who contacted the CDC, and only then did the hospital isolate Duncan and test him for Ebola.

My point here isn’t to jump into the blame game. There’s enough of that going around. But if we are to minimize the damage and contain this deadly virus, we are going to need everyone to do better.

I believe what we need most of all is transparency — honest answers coupled with facts repeated as often as necessary in order to both allay the public’s fears and educate us about the risks. If the government, public health officials and the medical community keep secrets from us, how can we trust what they’re saying and doing to prevent an epidemic in the United States?

We need consistency. We need all airlines, all hospitals, emergency workers, border control agents and public health agencies to operate under clear and non-negotiable rules in order to ensure infected people are identified and properly handled.

We need leadership that can coordinate this massive undertaking.

We need to eliminate any trace of denial. I say this because if people here think Ebola won’t or can’t come to Hawaii, they’d be mistaken. The virus does not respect borders or oceans.

The important thing is for us to be ready, just in case, and for all of us to have enough information and enough trust in our public health officials so we can remain calm and effective in the face of a potential challenge.

In the meantime, and barring any escalation of the situation in Texas, my husband and I plan to have a good time in Dallas.

Twitter: @JadeMoon1