Health officials clam up about effort to contain Ebola in Texas

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Health officials are refusing to answer growing questions about their response to the first Ebola case in the United States.

Under intense questioning from reporters, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Texas health department and the City of Dallas repeatedly declined Thursday to provide details about the steps being taken to prevent an outbreak.

{mosads}Texas Health Commissioner David Lakey, who participated in one press call Thursday, would not identify or describe the four individuals who have been quarantined due to possible exposure to Ebola. They were later referred to as “family members” at a separate press conference.

Officials confirmed that roughly 100 people are being questioned about possible exposure to the virus — up from reports of more than 80 earlier in the day. Only a “handful” likely could have caught the virus, they said, and no one but the patient is showing symptoms.

Lakey would not explain why the quarantine order was necessary, saying only that it brings “confidence” that key medical monitoring will take place. Another official said later that the four individuals sought to leave home, but would not provide more detail.

Lakey also declined to answer questions about the hospital communication error that allowed the Ebola patient, identified by media outlets as Thomas Eric Duncan, to return home Friday after seeking treatment.

”Unfortunately, connections weren’t made related to travel history and symptoms,” he said. 

”I don’t have that final analysis right now. … We’re still investigating how the information fell through the cracks.”

While health officials have vowed transparency as they deal with the Ebola patient, they are also charged with maintaining calm. Officials stress that they are trying to avoid spreading misinformation.

“We will give you all the valid information we have as soon as we have it,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. 

But limiting disclosure can undermine agencies’ credibility when information spills out on its own. 

Neither Texas nor the CDC has confirmed Duncan’s identity or his flight path through Brussels and Washington, for example. 

The Liberian government revealed the patient’s name on Wednesday, while United Airlines confirmed his presence on one of its flights.

Frieden acknowledged Thursday that Ebola would pose a risk to the United States until the epidemic stops in West Africa.

“The plain truth is that we can’t make the risk zero until the outbreak is controlled,” he said. 

”What we can do is minimize that risk … by working to ensure that there are no more individuals that will be exposed [here].”

Frieden also said that, in theory, a sneeze or cough could spread the virus from someone experiencing Ebola symptoms. 

Officials had previously downplayed this possibility, focusing on direct contact with bodily fluids. 

“There are certainly theoretical situations where someone sneezes … and you touch your eyes or mouth or nose,” and catch the virus from any transmitted particles, he said. 

“[But] realistically you can say what may be theoretically possible as opposed to what actually happens in the real world,” he added. 

Texas health officials faced their own barrage of questions at a Thursday afternoon press conference.

Reporters asked: How many of Duncan’s younger contacts were in school this week? Why weren’t the four individuals quarantined in a medical facility? Why weren’t soiled linens that likely carry the virus immediately removed? 

The event became increasingly confrontational.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings scolded journalists for being “part of the problem” while calling the response to the case “at best, disorganized.”

”It is, at best, disorganized out there and we have some members of the press that are creating a bit more of that,” he said. “We need everybody to be professional.”

Journalists complained about the lack of information as officials left. 

”Is this transparency?” asked one reporter. “You bring us all here and then only take six or seven questions? … I have a job to do.”

The tensions with the press come at a time when Republican lawmakers are beginning to question whether the administration is doing enough to control the virus and prevent more infected people from entering the country.

“It’s a big mistake to downplay it and act as if it’s not a big deal,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

— This story was updated at 5:23 p.m.

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