The Cable

Whether There’s an Ebola Outbreak in the U.S. Depends on the Definition of ‘Outbreak’

Amid signs of a growing Ebola outbreak in the United States, the White House insisted Wednesday afternoon that the virus is contained, despite new warnings to Americans from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to take precautions and be vigilant. After news that a second health care worker in Dallas contracted the deadly disease, the ...

Mike Stone/Getty Images
Mike Stone/Getty Images

Amid signs of a growing Ebola outbreak in the United States, the White House insisted Wednesday afternoon that the virus is contained, despite new warnings to Americans from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to take precautions and be vigilant.

After news that a second health care worker in Dallas contracted the deadly disease, the CDC asked the 132 passengers who traveled with the new patient on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas on Oct. 13 to contact the CDC, regardless of whether or not they’re exhibiting symptoms. The CDC said that the second Ebola patient, who treated America’s patient zero, Thomas Eric Duncan, "should not have traveled."

Soon after, President Barack Obama canceled a trip to New Jersey and Connecticut and scheduled a meeting with his cabinet to discuss the growing number of cases. At an afternoon press conference, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, answering questions about why Obama changed his schedule after the new case was reported but did not alter his plans after pro-Russian separatists downed a plane over Ukraine in May, refused to call the situation an Ebola outbreak or epidemic.

"Our medical experts tell us that the risk is quite low," Earnest said, addressing concerns that the disease is easy to catch. "It is true. It’s guided by the science. That’s what our experts say."

Earnest added that the president has undertaken a "tenacious response that reflects evolving circumstances." He insisted that the real problem is in West Africa, where the epidemic began.

As the White House urged calm, Americans are growing increasingly worried. The CDC’s announcement — ripped from Hollywood movies and other works of fiction — means that U.S. health authorities are tracking down anyone who came into contact with the latest victim, now identified as 29-year-old Amber Joy Vinson. The first nurse who treated Duncan to contract Ebola was Nina Pham. If the CDC follows its own protocol, it will also monitor anyone Frontier Flight 1143 passengers came into contact with.

The CDC’s tracking follows reverse-911 calls in Dallas initiated by the city, reassuring residents that all areas that could host the virus had been cleaned. Some lawmakers were calling for flight bans to the epidemic’s epicenter even before the latest case and Republicans want Obama to appoint an "Ebola czar" to stop the spread of the disease. Ebola also played a part in a Wall Street sell-off, with the Dow shedding 173 points.

"We need to immediately reconsider our protocols and travel to the African states where Ebola is raging," Sen. Ron Johnson told Foreign Policy on Oct. 1 when news about Duncan contracting the disease broke. "Everyone was hoping it wouldn’t come to our shores but it’s here," and the CDC and government "have to figure out how it got here," said the Wisconsin Republican, who is in line to lead the Senate Homeland Security Committee if the GOP wins control of the Senate next month.

Texas Republican Ted Cruz asked the Federal Aviation Administration to consider banning flights "to countries that have experienced a significant Ebola outbreak," according to Roll Call.

But perhaps the most chilling notion came from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said on Wednesday that he is concerned the virus could become airborne.

"If you bring two doctors who happen to have that specialty into a room, one will say, ‘No, there is no way it will ever become airborne, but it could mutate so it could be harder to discover,’" he told CNN.

"Then it will be an extraordinarily serious problem," he said. "I don’t know who is right. I don’t want to take that chance, so I am taking it very seriously."

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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