FORT WORTH, Texas – The nation’s top disease-fighting agency acknowledged Tuesday that federal health experts failed to do all they should have done to prevent Ebola from spreading from a Liberian man who died last week in Texas to a nurse who treated him.
The stark admission from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came as the World Health Organization projected the pace of infections accelerating in West Africa – to as many as 10,000 new cases a week within two months.
Agency Director Tom Frieden outlined a series of steps designed to stop the spread of the disease in the U.S., including increased training for health care workers and changes at the Texas hospital where the virus was diagnosed to minimize the risk of more infections.
A total of 76 people at the hospital might have had exposure to Thomas Eric Duncan, and all of them are being monitored for fever and other symptoms daily, Frieden said. In addition, health officials have been monitoring 48 others who had some contact with Duncan before he was admitted to the hospital.
The Associated Press reported Monday that Nina Pham was among about 70 hospital staffers who were involved in Duncan’s care after he was hospitalized, based on medical records provided by Duncan’s family.
The announcement of the government’s stepped-up effort came after top health officials repeatedly assured the public over the past two weeks that they were doing everything possible to control the outbreak by deploying infectious-disease specialists to the hospital where Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola and later died.
“I wish we had put a team like this on the ground the day the patient – the first patient – was diagnosed. That might have prevented this infection. But we will do that from today onward with any case anywhere in the U.S.,” Frieden said.
Frieden described the new response team as having some of the world’s leading experts in how to care for Ebola and protect health care workers. They planned to review everything from how the isolation room is laid out, to what protective equipment health workers use, to waste management and decontamination.
In Europe, the WHO said the death rate in the outbreak has risen to 70 percent as it has killed nearly 4,500 people, most of them in West Africa. The previous mortality rate was about 50 percent.
President Barack Obama, speaking at the end of a meeting with U.S. and allied military leaders, declared that the “the world is not doing enough” to fight Ebola.
“Everybody’s going to have to do more than they are doing right now,” he said.
Pham became the first person to contract the disease on U.S. soil as she cared for Duncan. Pham released a statement Tuesday through Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital saying she is “doing well,” and the hospital listed her in good condition. The hospital CEO said medical staff members remain hopeful about her condition.
The 26-year-old nurse had been in Duncan’s room often, from the day he was placed in intensive care until the day before he died last week.
“I’m doing well and want to thank everyone for their kind wishes and prayers,” she said.
Pham’s parents live in Fort Worth, where they are part of a close-knit, deeply religious community of Vietnamese Catholics. Members of their church celebrated a special Mass for her Monday and sorority sisters at Texas Christian University held a candlelight vigil for her Tuesday. At the hospital, she received a plasma transfusion from a doctor who beat the virus.
She and other health care workers wore protective gear, including gowns, gloves, masks and face shields – and sometimes full-body suits – when caring for Duncan. Health officials have said there was a breach in protocol that led to the infections but they don’t know where the breakdown occurred.
Among the changes announced Tuesday by Frieden was a plan to limit the number of health care workers who care for Ebola patients so they “can become more familiar and more systematic in how they put on and take off protective equipment, and they can become more comfortable in a healthy way with providing care in the isolation unit.”
Frieden said he was fully aware of the fear among health care workers in Texas and around the country about the risks of contracting the virus should it spread further. In response, he said an on-site manager who is an expert in infectious diseases will be in charge of every step of the process, along with new training for health care workers.
“Ebola is unfamiliar. It’s scary, and getting it right is really, really important because the stakes are so high,” he said, adding that he wishes the CDC had done more from the beginning.
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