Why the Federal Government has a Credibility Problem
by Jim Sharp, PCP
Vice President & Chief Training Officer
Aegis Emergency Management
“There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” Sounds familiar, right? But it’s not a quote about the current Ebola outbreak. It’s a quote from Rupert Blue, the then Surgeon General of the United States, regarding the 1918 “Spanish Flu” influenza pandemic. At the time he said that, influenza and its complications had killed 4597 people just in the city of Philadelphia and just during the week of October 16th, 1918. By the time it was “over” it had killed approximately 675,000 Americans.
Ebola won’t do that – at least not here and not as it presently exists – but people don’t believe what they’re being told for a lot of the same reasons, first among those being the apparent inability of the Federal government to do even the simplest things. Here’s what I mean: The first confirmed Ebola patient was admitted to the hospital on September 28th, confirmed to have Ebola on September 30th and passed away on October 8th, but it was not UNTIL October 8th that the Federal government announced its plans to increase the level of screening at airports receiving flights from West Africa. That “enhanced” screening – which consists basically of taking temperatures and asking a few questions – did not go into effect until October 11th (the same day the 2nd Ebola case was confirmed) and even then it only took effect at one airport. The other airports did not even begin their enhanced screening until October 16th.
Seriously, how long does it take (or how long should it take) to buy a bunch of thermometers and teach people how to use them? Most American parents learn that in about 30 seconds. Schools routinely ask parents to keep a sick child at home, but as a country we can’t (or won’t) institute a travel ban from regions where an outbreak with a 50%-70% mortality rate is raging? And yes, most people do indeed see that disparity and that’s the root of the government’s credibility problem. The common-sense things that they ask us to do, or that we would do as a matter of course, are not being done at the very highest levels.
Case in point: the recent announcement that military members returning from service in the epidemic area will be held in isolation for the length of the Ebola incubation period (generally agreed upon as 21 days maximum). Why require isolation of military personnel, but not of civilians returning from the very same areas?
And the credibility coup de grace for me personally was the CDC Emergency Partners conference call I participated in on October 23rd. The CDC doctor leading the call started by giving the then-current morbidity and mortality figures (which as of 10/22 were 9901 confirmed cases and 4865 fatal cases, for a mortality rate of about 49%), then followed up with a list of what he termed “challenges” to containing the virus in West Africa. Some of the challenges he mentioned included lack of medical infrastructure, fear and superstition, and porous borders – which sort of begged the question: If the CDC acknowledges porous borders as a challenge to containment, why are our own borders allowed to remain open?
Look at it this way – if you knew with a high degree of certainty that your car was going to catch fire after you got home from work, would you leave it parked on the street or would you go ahead and bring it into your garage, secure in your belief that you’d be able to detect and extinguish the fire before it spread to your home and family . . .