Hazmat crew decontaminating the apartment in Dallas where Thomas Eric Duncan stayed. © JIM YOUNG/Reuters/Corbis
In the days since the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, two workers at the Dallas hospital where he died have tested positive for the disease. And federal health officials say one of those women took a commercial flight back to Texas from Cleveland the day before she reported symptoms.
All of this has left America's health care infrastructure shaken but resolute to swiftly recognize, contain and treat a virus with no known cure.
That's a tall order for any health care system, especially a private-market one like ours that has, until recently, had limited incentive for everyone to play well together.
Don't misunderstand: We manage to get the job done hospital to hospital and physician to physician. It's just that the sheer multitude of proprietary medical communications channels and software can make presenting a united front for something like Ebola a logistical nightmare.
Government agencies mobilize
The Centers for Disease Control -- and let's be sure to tack on its last name, "and Prevention," in this context -- knows well what it's up against here and has been working around the clock to prepare Main Street health care for what has the potential to be the Godzilla bug of our day.
The CDC's Health Alert Network, which keeps providers up to date and on the same page, has been stuffed with briefings, guidelines and protocols to keep everyone from 911 operators and emergency room docs to EMS crews and front desk staff apprised on how to corral this monster should it saunter into their town. The CDC now even offers a weekly course to clinicians on safety and infection control.
The agency has closed ranks with the Department of Homeland Security to enhance security screening for Ebola at the five U.S. airports that receive 94 percent of the inbound traffic from the west African nations hardest hit by the virus. The five international hubs include:
- JFK in New York
- New Jersey's Newark Liberty
- Chicago O'Hare
- Washington Dulles
- Atlanta Hartsfield
The CDC also has been reaching out to passengers who were on the Cleveland-to-Dallas Frontier Airlines flight with that second Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital employee to test positive for the Ebola virus.
The concerns for health insurers
One can easily imagine the board meetings being hastily called at hospitals, physician groups and, yes, health insurance companies that will ultimately be called upon to settle the monetary bills to fight this mortal threat. The cost to care for Duncan, an uninsured Liberian, ran in the neighborhood of $500,000. Suffice to say, that's a very uncomfortable neighborhood if you're a health insurance company.
While specialty-lines insurers have offered group coverage to non-governmental humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders that cover all diseases, including Ebola, claims have been relatively few. That said, the cost of the experimental drugs that were used to treat American volunteers Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol typically would not be covered.
And so, we wait and watch, taking what comfort we can in the global response to such past epidemics as AIDS, swine flu, bird flu and SARS, and hope that a medical Maginot Line against a virus that looks disarmingly like a child's doodle will be similarly successful.
Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus
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Veteran contributing editor Jay MacDonald is co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook."