Calm down — America is officially Ebola-free

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman:  I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. America’s Ebola scare seems to be over. In Texas, 177 people in the Dallas area who’d had some connection to the 3 Ebola cases there got the all-clear. In Maine, Casey Hickox is also now clear; she’s the nurse who battled authorities over quarantine restrictions. And in New York, infected physician Craig Spencer is continuing to improve. So, is it over? William Fischer is a doctor at the University of North Carolina. We spoke with him back in July about his trip to treat Ebola patients in Guinea. We caught up with him again today and he says it’s still early to declare ourselves Ebola-free.


William Fischer: To be honest, we won’t be Ebola free until the physician in New York is actually declared free. I think that’s the first thing. I think we’ve gotten over that first hump of initial sensationalism and fear that goes along with the recognition of a new virus in the United States. But the reality is that we are not free until the epidemic that’s occurring in West Africa is over.


Werman: So, would you describe things here right now as being at a constant risk until things are clear over in West Africa?


Fischer: Yeah. I think we have to put the focus where the epidemic is.I think that we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning and we’ve been able to regroup from those initial mistakes and really implement the full strength of our infection control mechanism that’s in this country to be able to control an outbreak and prevent an outbreak from really occurring. But I think the focus still has to be on West Africa.


Werman: I know we should be focusing at the source, but we’d like to speak with you about what we got right here in the States. So, you said there were a lot of mistakes made. Is there one thing that you can draw out that was a success, that you think really should be looked at as something that needs to be reproduced in West Africa right now?


Fischer: I think one of the major strengths of our response was once the recognition of a case in the United States was made, the Centers for Disease Control put a tremendous amount of resources into tracing contacts of that known case. That contact tracing is really following people who have had contact with a person who is suspected or confirmed to have Ebola, and making sure that they don’t develop symptoms. That’s a key part of this and that’s something that needs to be done more effectively in these affected countries. It’s just so much more difficult given the scale of the epidemic over there. We had one case in Dallas, and you saw we had hundreds of contacts that had to be followed. Now imagine doing that same contact tracing for 10,000 cases.


Werman: And what about the quarantines that we saw put into effect here in the States. Were they necessary? Did they work? There was a lot of debate about that.


Fischer: I don’t think the quarantine did anything. Who have we quarantined? We’ve quarantined this nurse who’s tested negative on multiple occasions; we quarantined a contact of Dr. Spencer’s, who has never become symptomatic. I think we’re seeing an expression of fear and I think it’s important to recognize that this is emanating out of fear and not out of science, because I think that provides us an opportunity to intervene and say “Hey listen, we understand you’re scared, but let’s go discuss how this virus is transmitted, who is at risk of transmitting the virus and who is at risk of becoming infected?” I think fear is an opportunity to educate.


Werman: Do you think that conversation has happened here in the States, or are people just not talking about Ebola because the headlines aren’t screaming “Ebola!” as much as they were a month ago?


Fischer: I think the conversation is being had at major medical centers. I have not gone a single day without hearing the word “Ebola” or “preparedness,” and I think that most medical centers around the country are actually aggressively trying to raise the level of preparedness in their institutions. I don’t think the conversation has fallen off within the medical community. I think it’s fallen out of the newspapers a little bit, and that’s typical after you have this sensational event and things get a little bit quiet, but we should not interpret that as the medical community dropping their guard. I can tell you that the majority of medical institutions that I’ve spoken with, people are aggressively trying to get prepared in case this happens again.


Werman: That was William Fischer, a doctor from North Carolina who’s also treated Ebola patients in Guinea.