On Wednesday, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital announced Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian national being treated for Ebola, had died from the virus. Just under 4,000 people in Liberia and Sierra Leone have died from Ebola amid the rush to contain the virus' spread. Duncan was the first person this year to die from Ebola within US borders.
The US is exploring strict measures to restrict travel from West Africa. Those include taking passengers' temperatures when they enter the US from areas where Ebola has spread, as well as extensively questioning aid workers, doctors and others who could have potentially come in contact with the virus.
Medical ethicist Art Caplan, who works at NYU's Langone Medical Center, said the US response to the Ebola outbreak hasn't met the challenge posed by the virus.
"I'm a little irritated that we still don't have the screening measures in place. They're way overdue. They should've been taking temperatures, asking questions" at airports, Caplan said in an appearance on Boston Public Radio. "We've seen one case now in Dallas, they said they put a police car outside the door. I thought that was nice. And if the person started running out the door and started running away you would do what — shoot him? Taser him? Tackle him?"
Caplan said public education about Ebola has fallen short as well. "We're a long way from having people say, Yep, I know the six hospitals in Boston where I should go if I thought a visitor to me had Ebola. Or, I know the signs and symptoms exactly to know what I'm looking for," Caplan said.
Boston Public Radio cohost Jim Braude asked why it's taken so long to develop basic protocols to address the Ebola threat.
"I think there's a diversity of agencies, and that's a problem. You've got city public health, state public health, CDC. The law sort of gives each of them a piece of the pie in dealing with infectious disease, but it makes for a little Tower of Babel when you start saying, Who's job is this, who's on top of this, who's in charge here," Caplan said. "Having authority going down to the local level sounds good, but it actually leads to a kind of cacophony of different groups issuing different principles, confusing each other."
Braude asked Caplan whether politics has played into the response to Ebola. Caplan answered the question with another question.
"Where is the Surgeon General? Remember that person that used to pop up and give speeches and educate us about diseases, and all that sort of thing?" The answer? There isn't one. Caplan pointed out that the US has been without a Surgeon General since Regina Benjamin's July 2013 resignation. "There's a little politics for you. I mean, they've got the Harvard Dr. [Vivek Murthy] who's been nominated. (...) We're in the middle of a public health crisis and you see the CDC guy [director Thomas Frieden] on, but he's doing double duty. The Surgeon General is supposed to be part of the education of Americans about this," Caplan said.
Boston Public Radio cohost Margery Eagan mentioned Texas Governor Rick Perry's interest in screening all points-of-entry along US borders for Ebola. "There's no disease in Central or South America. I consider that fear-mongering. It's sort of like the 'infected hordes' are coming at us along the Mexico border," Caplan said.
>> To hear the entire conversation with Art Caplan on Boston Public Radio, click the audio player above.