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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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Are You Worried About The Right Epidemic?

The deadly plague mushrooms. The list of its victims grows longer. Yet, the mercurial president and his lap-dog lieutenants send out mixed messages, promising measures to keep us safer, then backing away from any corrective that might save lives.

I'm not talking about COVID-19 (the disease caused by the infamous coronavirus). I'm talking about gun violence, which has long been a pandemic in the United States. On Wednesday, a troubled employee of Milwaukee's Molson Coors brewery killed five of his colleagues on the sprawling campus before fatally shooting himself. According to The Washington Post, it was the first mass killing of 2020 — defined as an attack in which four or more people are killed. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said it was Wisconsin's 11th mass shooting (wherein four or more people are injured) since 2004.

Let that sink in for a moment. In the last decade and a half, one state — and far from the most populous — has had 11 mass shootings. Yet, the Milwaukee atrocity barely broke through news coverage of President Donald J. Trump's disastrous press conference on his administration's response to the recent coronavirus outbreak.

Even so, mass shootings draw more news media attention than the routine gun carnage that wreaks havoc on communities across the country. We have grown inured to the child shot dead by a stray bullet on a playground, to the crazed motorist firing at the driver who cut him off in traffic, to the estranged husband gunning down his wife.

In 2017, the last year for which authoritative federal data were available, about three-quarters of all homicides in the U.S. were committed with firearms, according to the Pew Research Center. And here's something we don't discuss: About 60 percent of firearms deaths are suicides.

For some perspective, consider these statistics: So far, there have been 60 reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. — with, luckily, no deaths so far (though that could quickly change). By contrast, nearly 40,000 Americans were killed by firearms last year, and there's no reason to expect this year to alter the statistics significantly.

We have panicked over COVID-19: Certainly, Trump's casual attitude in minimizing a possible pandemic — even as his medical experts had just told the public to expect more cases — did little to reassure us. We buy masks, hand sanitizer and household antimicrobial cleaners. We avoid shaking hands with business acquaintances, we cancel travel, we swear off ocean cruises.

But we don't vote out the politicians who cower before the gun lobby. When 20 little children and six adults were gunned down in Sandy Hook in 2012, I was certain that Congress would finally find the guts to stand up to the National Rifle Association and its power-mad allies. It didn't.

Now, we just shrug when Congress fails to pass the sensible measures that the overwhelming majority of Americans support, such as background checks for private gun sales. Instead, we hire security guards to patrol our sanctuaries during worship and teach our children to cower under their desks during active-shooter drills. We lay wreaths at the scenes of mass shootings.

While we have not conquered the opioid epidemic, we have found the will to bring massive lawsuits against the pharmaceutical manufacturers who blanketed the landscape with their addictive drugs. But gun manufacturers are protected against lawsuits, even though their deadly products do so much harm. Worse yet, the gun lobby — strangely enough — has even fought new technology for "smart guns," which could only be fired by authorized users. Why? What sort of madness would inspire that stance?

Recently, I listened to my fifth grader's school principal explain that the district is considering adopting a new approach for active-shooter drills. Instead of teaching the children to hide in a closet — the shelter-in-place technique is outdated, it seems — schools may be telling kids to run, to scatter or even to tackle the shooter. This is the instruction that could be given to 11-year-olds. As many psychologists have pointed out, that sort of training is likely to scare kids into nightmares while doing little to protect them from harm.

Trump, who is wrong about so many things, was misinformed when he suggested at his press conference that scientists are close to finding a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. They are not. But they will find a cure for that coronavirus much faster than for the firearms madness that is killing so many of us.

‘Epidemic Of Fear’ Has Driven Ebola Debate, Experts Say

By Tony Pugh, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In his 30 years as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci has seen his share of public health scares.

When AIDS exploded in the 1980s among gay men, Fauci recalls that some people didn’t want gay waiters to serve them in restaurants. And during the anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many were afraid to open their mail.

But when it comes to Ebola, “This one’s got a special flavor of fear,” Fauci said at the recent Washington Ideas Forum, sponsored by The Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy group.

The growing death toll in West Africa has helped create “an epidemic of fear” in the U.S., Fauci said, even though most experts feel the likelihood of a widespread outbreak in this country is minimal.

James Colgrove, a public health professor at Columbia University, said the chances of an outbreak in this country are “extremely remote.” Pamela Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association, went even further. “What we know right now would suggest that there is no risk of an epidemic,” she said.

Enhanced screenings of West African visitors allow U.S. health officials to “very quickly identify and sequester and evaluate and care for anyone who shows any type of risk,” Cipriano said. “That’s a very high level of control.”

Even in Dallas, where Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan triggered the nation’s first potential outbreak, only two nurses contracted the virus after direct contact with Duncan while he was desperately ill. That’s out of 70-plus health care workers and 48 family and community members who interacted with him.

Despite the flawed federal and local response, the Dallas episode proved what Fauci and other experts have said all along: Ebola is tough to catch and even tougher to spread when contact tracing, patient isolation and quarantines are in place.

But rather than validate experts’ calls to trust the science and impose public health precautions that reflect actual risk, the Dallas scare triggered a policy backlash driven by fear. Individual states imposed mandatory quarantines for all health care workers returning from Ebola-stricken West Africa, even if they had no symptoms and weren’t contagious.

Kaci Hickox, a Doctors Without Borders nurse who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, was, upon returning, kept in an isolation tent for a weekend by New Jersey officials, even though she showed no symptoms of the virus.

She was permitted to return home to Maine, where officials tried to legally quarantine her. A judge ruled in her favor, requiring only that Hickox monitor herself for signs of Ebola for 21 days, which ended Monday night.

“The fear is trumping science,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Lawmakers continue to call for outright travel bans from West Africa, which, experts say, would only cause people to seek alternative entry while discouraging U.S. caregivers from helping out in Africa.

Fauci said the severe responses are simply good-faith efforts by politicians to protect fearful constituents.

“You have to respect the fear of people,” he said. “You can’t denigrate it and say, ‘Why are you afraid?’ You’ve got to try and explain to them and you’ve got to do it over and over. … It’s just that as a health person, as a physician and a scientist, I would say you look at the data, and it tells you what the risk is.”

Ebola is only transmitted by direct contact through broken skin or mucous membranes with the body fluids of infected people. Airborne transmission of the virus — through tiny, dry particles that float through the air — does not occur.

But if larger saliva or mucous droplets from an infected person are expelled by coughing or sneezing and come in contact with another’s eyes, nose or mouth, that person could become infected. No such infections, however, have ever been documented.

Americans’ lingering fears about the disease stem partly from health officials’ misstatements about the nation’s readiness to fight it.

Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, originally said hospitals in this country were ready to care for Ebola patients. Many, in fact, were not.

The agency then had to revise its outdated and insufficient guidance on personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of Ebola caregivers. The CDC also provided contradictory information about whether people being monitored for Ebola symptoms should be allowed on public transportation.

“Some of the missteps have eroded some of the trust that the public has had,” said Cipriano, the nurses association president. “I think that it certainly has added to the sense of, ‘Well, who do we trust?’ ”

Colgrove said Frieden’s mistakes were surprising, because the CDC director had always excelled in the art of communicating risk. Frieden used to refer to public health in an epidemic as “the art of controlled hysteria,” Colgrove said.

“You want people to be worried enough that they give you the resources that you need to do the job,” explained Colgrove, the Columbia professor, “but you don’t want them to be so worried that they do stupid things. It’s a very, very delicate balance that he has to walk. That any public health official has to walk.”

With a lull in the number of new Ebola cases, many are hoping the U.S. has seen the worst of the deadly virus. But Benjamin, of the American Public Health Association, knows better.
“I always remain skeptical and vigilant,” he said. “So while I’m hoping that we have, I still believe that we have to keep a high index of suspicion.”

AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla

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Why Bush Rejected A Travel Ban In Avian Flu Pandemic

When Republicans denounce a decision by the Obama administration — especially when they sound shrilly partisan — it is often true that a Republican president once made a similar policy choice, which they either supported or ignored at the time. And now we see the same pattern with Ebola, with House members and right-wing pundits furiously attacking the president’s refusal to institute a travel ban on Western African countries.

Not so long ago, as Jonathan Cohn points out in this thoughtful post, the Bush administration confronted a similar quandary when avian flu threatened to become a deadly pandemic. After examining the arguments for and against restrictions on travel from affected countries, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt — and presumably the president himself — became convinced that any travel ban would quickly become too difficult to enforce. As Leavitt explains:

It’s such an appealing idea, it sounds so easy. But it’s when you get to the second layer of activity and then the third and fourth it gets complicated. For example, imagine a Liberian citizen goes to Spain and in Spain he manifests symptoms and people in Spain get it. Do you now expand the travel ban to include Spain? Somebody from Spain goes to the U.K. and now it’s there, so do you include the U.K.? Now somebody who gets it there turns out to be a U.S. citizen and wants to come home to get treated. Do you let the citizen in?

Despite potentially high mortality rates (and much easier transmission than Ebola), Bush officials ultimately determined that any such rules would prove ineffective as well as unenforceable. Is it necessary to note that back then no Republican uttered a whisper of criticism against Bush or Leavitt — while they now vilify the president and CDC chief Dr. Tom Frieden?

 

Doctor Exposed To Ebola Treated In U.S.

Washington (AFP) — An American doctor who was exposed to the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone was admitted to a clinic of the National Institutes of Health outside Washington.

The patient, whose identity was not revealed, was volunteering as a physician in a unit treating those suffering from the tropical fever that has already killed more than 3,000 people in west Africa since the end of last year.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the patient has been admitted to the NIH Clinical Center’s special clinical studies unit that is specifically designed to provide high-level isolation capabilities and is staffed by infectious diseases and critical care specialists,” the medical research center said in a statement, released Sunday.

“The unit staff is trained in strict infection control practices optimized to prevent spread of potentially transmissible agents such as Ebola.”

It stressed that treating the patient in the United States “presents minimal risk” to other patients, NIH staff, and the public.

Two American doctors and a Christian missionary infected by the Ebola virus in Liberia were flown back to the United States to receive treatment and have since recovered.

Global health experts have agreed that blood therapies and convalescent serums can be used to fight Ebola immediately, while safety trials begin for potential vaccines.

There is no drug or vaccine on the market to treat Ebola.

Ebola is transmitted by close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. The virus causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fatal bleeding.

The Ebola epidemic has now infected more than 6,500 people in West Africa and killed nearly half of them, according to the World Health Organization.

AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso

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