In a press conference Tuesday evening, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Thomas Frieden provided more information about a patient confirmed to be carrying Ebola—the first to be diagnosed in the United States.
The patient, who has been identified as a male, left Liberia on September 19 and arrived in the United States on September 20. Four days later, the man began showing symptoms. On September 26, he reportedly “sought care,” which Frieden declined to elaborate on. On the evening of September 28, the patient was placed in isolation. By 1:22 p.m. Tuesday, experts in Dallas had confirmed that the patient had Ebola. Frieden said the patient is now “critically ill” and that the CDC is exploring “experimental Ebola treatments.”
Since the patient did not show symptoms of the infection until four days after arriving in the United States, he was not contagious on the plane or in the airport. “At this point, there is zero risk of transmission on the flight. The illness would not have gone on 10 days before diagnosis. He was checked with fever before the flight,” said Frieden. “Ebola is a scary disease because of the severity of the illness it causes. At the same time, we’re stopping it in its tracks in this country. We can do that because of two things: strong health care…and strong public health that can track contacts and isolate them. We’re stopping this in its tracks.”
When probed about whether the patient is American, Frieden replied: “The individual was here to visit family who are in this country. Further details are to be identified in the coming days…whether they are relevant or not, we’ll see. In terms of contact tracing, we’re just beginning today.” Asked if the patient was a health-care worker or involved in the fight against Ebola, Frieden said it did not appear so. “That is something we are investigating,” he said.
Initial symptoms of Ebola are what doctors call “non-specific” but generally involve an increased temperature, fatigue, and headache. “The details of the individual are things we will investigate,” said Frieden. While the virus can remain incubated for up to 21 days, it is not contagious until a patient begins showing symptoms.
Asked how many people the patient came in contact with, Frieden estimated fewer than five. “Handful is the right characterization,” he said. “We know there were family members who came in contact, and there may be other community members, but we will cast the net wide.”
The CDC has deployed staff to the Dallas hospital where the patient is being treated. For now, Dallas officials say they feel confident saying they are “well prepared” for the infection, noting they had held a meeting about Ebola the week before. “He’s being treated by highly trained specialists, and the health department is helping us trace any family members that may have been exposed,” a Texas health official said. Frieden stressed once again that the virus can be stopped and that it is not airborne.
With isolation and careful contact tracing, the CDC appears confident that the outbreak will stop with this patient. “Bottom line, I have no doubt that we will control this importation or case so that it does not spread widely in this country,” said Frieden. “It is certainly possible that someone who had contact with this individual could develop Ebola, but there is no doubt in my mind it will stop here.”
With the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting more than 6,000 cases of Ebola and more than 3,000 deaths in West Africa, the current epidemic is now worse than all others combined.
These numbers, although startling, are thought to “vastly underestimate” the reality. According to a new report from the CDC, the worst is yet to come. In Sierre Leone and Liberia, the CDC estimates that the number of cases doubles every 30 days and 24 days, respectively.
At a press conference in early September, Frieden warned world leaders that the “window was closing” on the time left to contain the effort. “It’s spiraling out of control. It’s bad now, and it’s going to get worse in the very near future,” Frieden told the press. “There is still a window of opportunity to tamp it down, but that window is closing.”
During an emergency United Nations meeting on Ebola last week, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who is serving as acting president of the U.N. Security Council, called the epidemic the “greatest peacetime challenge the U.N. and its agencies have ever faced.” At the same session, Dr. David Nabarro, senior U.N. system coordinator for Ebola relief, announced that getting the outbreak under control would require a response 20 times greater than the current effort.
As the epidemic spikes, global leaders are beginning to offer much-needed support. Last week, President Obama announced that the United States plans to deploy 3,000 troops to Liberia to build isolation centers and offer support to victims—a mission that is estimated to incur upward of $175 million in costs. Speaking to world leaders last week, Obama declared, “I want us to be clear: We are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough. Right now, everybody has the best of intentions, but people are not putting in the kinds of resources that are necessary to put a stop to this epidemic,” he said. “There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be.”
Other countries, including France, the United Kingdom, and China, have made significant donations. The World Bank, too, has stepped up efforts, announcing a pledge of an additional $170 million to fight the epidemic, bringing its total pledge to $400 million.
But with a new report from the CDC last Wednesday suggesting a worst-case scenario of 1.4 million cases by January, a surge in support seems long overdue. While the world has begun to mobilize in the fight against the virus, many fear the effort is coming too late.