Time for panic? No, but it’s time for an abundance of caution

Now, now, let’s not panic. Yes, we have a second Ebola patient infected after treating the Liberian man who apparently concealed his exposure to this often-fatal disease, but this is no reason to panic.

“It’s bad news that another person is sick,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Wednesday to MSNBC anchor Jose Diaz-Balart.

Indeed.

It’s actually terrible news to the other 75 health care workers who treated the forever infamous Thomas Eric Duncan before his death. Though there is some good news — the first nurse infected, Nina Pham, is in “good” condition — the bad news likely will continue as health officials anticipate that there will be more cases. The infection of a second nurse, identified by her family as Amber Joy Vinson, 29, is also not such great news for the residents in her apartment complex, where hazmat workers are now scouring the public areas, or travelers on the Frontier Airlines flight she flew on Monday.

Other passengers are being asked to call in.

We are supposed to find consolation, however, in assurances that the second infected health worker followed protocol and went to the hospital as soon as she registered a fever. Within 90 minutes, we are told, she was in isolation.

Really? It took an hour and a half to isolate someone most likely infected with Ebola?

Next we hear that the “breach” — a “medical term,” Jenkins patiently explained to viewers lest they become unduly concerned — may have been connected to the lack of precision in the wearing of protective gear. A national nurses union claims that hospital caregivers’ wrists were exposed between their gloves and sleeves.

Now those tending the two infected Americans are shown on television conspicuously covering the sleeves of their suits with the tops of their rubber gloves and then taping them tight. Two down, possibly 75 to go, and now we’re getting really careful.

But here’s the billboard: REALLY?!

We don’t want to prevent people from horribly infected countries, where cases are predicted in the 10,000-a-week range, from coming to the United States. We’re a country of immigrants after all and it would be, what?, mean to turn them away? Forgive me, I missed my PC booster shot.

The official argument, counterintuitive but seemingly true, is that we can’t kick Ebola if we don’t keep travel open. Meaning, if we don’t send troops and health workers to nip the disease at its source, we have no chance of stopping it. (Question du jour: How many cases before a place becomes a source?)

A physicist at Northeastern University in Boston, Alessandro Vespignani, has developed a computer model to predict the spread of Ebola via air travel. His model indicates that halting travel won’t stop the spread of Ebola. But applying a common sense model from one’s own noggin, might we prevent more cases from arriving to our shore?

If we dare, it makes exceptionally good sense to treat travelers from infected countries with exceptional scrutiny on this end of the trip.

And, no, laser temperature guns aren’t enough, though they’re really cool. Ditto the questionnaire, which asks people to be super honest and tell us whether they’ve been exposed to Ebola. The Liberian government says Duncan lied on his questionnaire. And he didn’t have a fever until after his arrival in the U.S.

But what about people who, though they’ve visited or lived in an infected country, fly to the U.S. from another country, as most do? Every traveler has a passport or travel papers. Flagging those who’ve recently been in an infected country might require a little international cooperation, but this is hardly an impossible proposition.

We know that symptoms present within 21 days, so why not quarantine every traveler who has visited or lived in an infected country (Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone) in the past 30 days for three weeks upon arrival?

Undoubtedly, someone will challenge this as a violation of civil rights — or a taxpayer burden (finally, a program to which all citizens would willingly tithe) — but extreme circumstances require extreme measures. Quarantine needn’t be treated or viewed as punishment but as an abundance of caution. Bring in the Club Med folks to make it fun. Have restaurateurs donate meals. Set up high-definition screens for Skyping. Create a PayPal website for donations from Americans wishing to contribute.

Hell, make them heroes. Put them on TV. Bring in the speakers bureaus. But make it less possible for these people, some whom really are heroes, from helping spread a deadly disease. My proposal may not be foolproof, but anything less may prove us fools.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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