POLITICS

Ebola Is Nearly Gone And Largely Forgotten. Thank The Government, Says Ebola Czar.

05/11/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The West African country at the epicenter of an Ebola outbreak that killed 11,000 people was declared free of the deadly disease on Saturday. The milestone -- seemingly inconceivable just a few months back -- was marked by relative silence.

The World Health Organization's announcement has been discussed just four times on CNN, according a HuffPost review of TV transcripts. Fox News ran four segments, MSNBC just two, CNBC and Fox Business ran none and Headline News ran five. None of the segments took place after the weekend.

That the public's attention toward Ebola has waned as the news about the disease has become far less apocalyptical isn't a surprise to those who worked on combatting the epidemic.

"One of the privileges of living in a wealthy, great country is your ability not to have to worry about things. And I don't begrudge anybody for moving on," Ron Klain, who led President Barack Obama's Ebola response, said in an interview with The Huffington Post last week.

Klain spoke for over 40 minutes with HuffPost. Listen to the full conversation above.
This audio interview was edited by Ibrahim Balkhy.

What worries Klain is that some fundamental lessons could be lost thanks to the public's short attention span -- mainly that in moments of crisis, government can do remarkable work. When he started, Klain noted, estimates were that West Africa would experience 1 million deaths by the end of January 2015. The fact that so many fewer people actually died was not a chance or accident, Klain said.

"I hope it stands as an example of what our government can do, and I hope it stands as an example of why we need a government," Klain said, citing things like federally funded scientific research, a robust public health system and airport screenings. "All these pieces were there that, yes we had to assemble, yes we had to activate, yes we had to train up, yes we had to get the right procedures in place, but they had to be there in the first place. Hopefully, it's an example of the good things our government can do when we need it."

Klain was tapped by the president on Oct. 17 to help coordinate the government's response to the Ebola crisis. The day before, the head of the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention admitted during a congressional hearing that the agency had allowed a nurse to board a commercial flight even though she'd tended to a sick Ebola patient.

"Everyone from the president on down would have liked that all these questions, all these practices and procedures in place before this thing happened, but this was a case of first impression," Klain said, noting that the mistake wasn't repeated.

His appointment was immediately criticized by those who wanted someone with public health experience to lead the effort. The administration insisted that the crisis called for someone who could coordinate different federal agencies as they spearheaded an international medical response and tried to prevent Ebola from cropping up at home. Klain, a longtime Democratic operative, fit that bill.

One of the most frightening things he discovered upon entering the job, he recalled, was not only how difficult it would be to mobilize care in West Africa -- where a modern medical infrastructure was virtually nonexistent -- but also the lack of resources at home.

"What we found was we had three hospitals ready to treat patients with Ebola, with probably a grand total of six beds, maybe seven, maybe eight," Klain said.

A shortage of hospital beds wouldn't ultimately be huge hurdle, as the instances of Ebola within the United States ended up being relatively minor. But even as the disease remained contained within the nation, the public's anxiety was not. Several governors defied the administration's protocol and implemented travel bans from West Africa -- a policy that Klain described as odd since there were no direct flights to the U.S. from the countries dealing with the outbreak. Still, he recognized the legitimacy of the panic.

Part of Obama's strategy to counteract the heightened concern was to embrace health care workers coming back from service in West Africa -- literally. Klain said the president wanted to be hands-on with volunteers, giving them hugs, so that other people would continue signing up to fight the epidemic.

"He understood that one thing he could do to try to encourage people to continue to volunteer, one thing he could do to try to reassure the American people that sending folks to West Africa and bringing them home was safe, was to be physically demonstrative in doing that," Klain said. "And both lauding the heroism of the folks who were going and demonstrating to people that it's OK when they come back to shake their hands, hug them. That was his instinct of the right thing to do, and he did it."

Klain said the American people were right to be somewhat anxious about Ebola, given its lethality. But he also expressed confidence that with the right procedures in place, it could be contained. For that reason alone, Klain said the administration actually saw opportunity in the late October news that Craig Spencer, a doctor in New York City who returned from Guinea, had contracted the virus.

"Obviously [it was] anxiety-inducing to have a highly infectious disease in our most populous city, no question about that," recalled Klain. "But on the other hand, we also knew that if we did it right, if we got Dr. Spencer into treatment and isolation quickly, if that treatment resulted in no one else getting sick, no one in the civilian population getting sick, no one who treated him getting sick, it would also be the most scrutinized place in America, and the word would go forth from New York City that in fact the policies and practices we had in place were keeping the American people safe."

Also on HuffPost:

  • 1 Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
  • 2 You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
  • 3 Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
  • 4 Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
  • 5 Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    LEON NEAL via Getty Images
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
  • 6 Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
  • 7 Ebola doesn't have a cure
    John Moore via Getty Images
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
  • 8 Ebola is a death sentence
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
  • 9 Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Just, no.
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