Who’s in charge of our national Ebola response? Early mistakes could lead to more infections

HHS Secretary Burwell on Ebola
Screencap of HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell being interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today show, Oct. 15, 2014.

[S]ometimes, I feel as if I’m watching the script of a biotech thriller being played out in the press lately—but I’m afraid it’s all too real. Yesterday, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas announced that a second nurse had tested positive for Ebola. This nurse, named this morning as Amber Joy Vinson, also worked with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died on October 8th from Ebola virus disease. Both Vinson and Nina Pham have been placed in isolation, which is comforting, but other news connected with the two women isn’t quite as comforting.

This morning, CBS News in Dallas reported[i] that Vinson traveled on a Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 from Cleveland to DFW on October 13th, the day before she reported her symptoms and was isolated for Ebola virus. Now, everyone on that flight must be contacted and perhaps even placed into self-imposed quarantine. Frontier Airlines says they have thoroughly cleaned the aircraft, and it has been removed from service as ordered by the CDC.

This comes on the heels of our morning news that reported angry Nurses’ Union representatives who are protesting the Dallas hospital’s handling of the Ebola cases, primarily that of Mr. Duncan, who was admitted after two tries—sent home the first time from the ER with pain meds and a pat on the head. Since then, the nurses of Texas Health have learned on the fly, and it’s clear that whatever sterile procedures and PPE (personal protection equipment) protocols existed were woefully inadequate. I’m wondering why the entire nursing staff who cared for Duncan wasn’t placed under quarantine for 21 days (the incubation period for Ebola). Nurse across the nation should be up in arms about this turn of events, and they should demand that their hospitals provide instruction and appropriate equipment for highly pathogenic disease patients.

The CDC is late to the game by only now promising to send a trained team of specialists to any hospital with a positive Ebola patient. And just what organization is actually in charge in the US? Our representatives signed an international agreement back in 2005 called the “International Health Regulations”[ii], which puts the World Health Organization in overall charge of any major biological threat, and which requires that all signatory nations form a governmental agency which would be second to WHO as governors for any such biological event. According to the CDC website:

To meet the requirements of IHR (2005) regulations, the United States is using strong state and local reporting and response networks to receive information at the federal level and then to respond to events of concern at the local and federal levels. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has assumed the lead role in carrying out the reporting requirements for IHR (2005). The Health and Human Services’ Secretary’s Operations Center (SOC) is the central body (referred to as the National Focal Point) responsible for reporting events to WHO.

If this document is correct, then where is the Health and Human Services Secretary? Has anyone seen Sylvia Burwell taking the lead on this? She did finally pop up yesterday bemoaning the response to Ebola in the United States by saying our government could have “performed much better oversight”[iii]. There’s an old slogan that used to close every advertisement for a well-known insurance company, “You’re in good hands with All State”. To be perfectly honest, I wish the same could be said for our current government response to Ebola.

But as a Christian, I look to the best hands of all: You’re in good hands with Jesus Christ.



[i] http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2014/10/15/ebola-patient-traveled-day-before-diagnosis/

[ii] http://www.who.int/ihr/publications/9789241596664/en/