News & Politics

Why Did the CDC Let Infected Ebola Nurse Fly?

As Dallas hospital apologizes for its mistakes, questions arise about the CDC’s culpability in letting an ill Ebola nurse board a commercial flight.

Photo Credit: HHS.gov

Critics are upset after a report, surfacing last night, reveals that Centers of Disease Control and Prevention allowed nurse Amber Vinson to fly back to Dallas even after she reported to them that she had a fever while visiting Ohio.

Vinson contacted the CDC hotline on Monday, the day her flight was leaving to inform them that she was one of the medical professionals charged in caring for Thomas Eric Duncan and that she had found she was running a mild fever while traveling. She indicated that she was about to board a commercial flight from Cleveland that was bound for Dallas. Vinson, according to the report, was assured that she could fly by the CDC. She then boarded Frontier Airlines Flight 1143, with a 132 other passengers. The CDC is currently trying to contact all passengers on that flight.

Only one day earlier, it was revealed that one of Vinson’s colleagues, nurse Nina Pham, had tested positive for Ebola and was undergoing treatment at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

Vinson told the CBS affiliatefor the Dallas Fort Worth area she was already feeling ill and had a low grade fever, before her flight but she said that CDC officials told her it was okay to get on the plane. Vinson told the station that she called the CDC several times with concerns about flying.

Earlier yesterday, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, reported that Vinson had a temperature of 99.5 degrees before she got on the plane, but did not reveal if the CDC had prior knowledge of this before her flight. “She should not have traveled on a commercial airline,” Frieden said. “The CDC guidance in this setting outlines the need for what is called controlled movement. That can include a charter plane, a car, but it does not include public transport. We will from this moment forward ensure that no other individual who is being monitored for exposure undergoes travel in any way other than controlled movement.”

The news of this breach of protocol by the CDC was reported by national television news outlets on Wednesday night.

While many gaffes were clearly made by Texas Health Memorial Presbyterian, from sending Duncan home with antibiotics after he indicated to them he had visited West Africa to shoddy infection-control and isolation practices, this is the first time the CDC was directly involved with a major gaffe that compromised public health.

New Yorker Executive Editor Amy Davidson cuts to the chase in her criticism of Frieden, saying that his account of how Vinson was allowed to board a plane is evasive at best.  

He was asked three different ways if Vinson had been told not to fly, and each time dodged the question in a way that left the impression that Vinson was some sort of rogue nurse who just got it into her head that she could fly wherever she wanted. He talked about her “self-monitoring,” and that she “should not have traveled, should not have been allowed to travel by plane or any public transport”—without mentioning that his agency was who allowed it.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) had already called for the resignation of Frieden, and Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) had joined him this morning in the wake of these recent revelations.

Congress will probe the nation’s response to the ebola outbreak today, while officials at Texas Health Presbyterian are expected to apologize for their errors that may have led to the spread of the virus. 

Frieden faced a series of tough questions as to his agency's failures in regard to putting clearer procedures in place to track those exposed to the virus, as well as its previous assessment that most hospitals were equipped to handle Ebola patients.

When asked if Vinson did contact the CDC prior to flying, Frieden indicated that she did say she was running a fever but did not indicate any symptoms. He was not part of the conversation with Vinson. 

"I have not seen the transcript of the conversation," says Frieden. "She reported no symptoms to us."

 

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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