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Ebola Virus Takes Center Stage In Washington


This almost never happens; President Obama has canceled travel plans. He famously holds to his schedule while managing urgent news, but he will stay in Washington, we're told, to oversee the response to Ebola.


That comes after a second Dallas health care worker tested positive for the virus. Both were involved in treating the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Dallas.

INSKEEP: The new case has prompted a scramble to identify more people who may have been exposed. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here. She's covering the story. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Thanks for coming in. OK, second nurse identified as Amber Vinson; that's her name. How many people did she possibly expose?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The concern is that she flew to Cleveland and back. When she left on this trip, she was part of a group of health care workers who were self-monitoring for symptoms like fever, so they could report them if they appeared. She visited family, and then she flew home to Dallas on the evening of October 13. The next morning, she reported to the hospital where she works with a low-grade fever, and she was quickly isolated.

INSKEEP: Should she have been traveling at all?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday that she should not have been traveling by airplane. He's expected to face questions today before Congress about what the CDC told her when she contacted the agency prior to getting on that flight. She didn't meet the fever threshold of 100.4 degrees that has people concerned, but she did report that she took her temperature and found it to be 99.5.

INSKEEP: Slight fever.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Low-grade fever. The AP is reporting that a CDC official did not tell her, you know, don't get on the plane. Still the CDC thinks the risk to anyone on that Frontier Airlines flight is very low. Ebola doesn't spread like the flu, and she didn't have symptoms like vomiting. Still the CDC wants to contact all 132 passengers on that flight just as a precaution.

INSKEEP: Just a reminder, it spreads through bodily fluids, contact with bodily fluids. But there is a more basic question here about how it could be that two nurses - trained nurses contacted Ebola when they were wearing protective gear at the time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. So that's something that officials have been actively looking into, trying to understand how these infections occurred. They were wearing protective gear, but not necessarily protective gear that was familiar to them or that was the kind of standard gear normally worn when caring for Ebola patients. Both the nurses took care of this patient when he had vomiting and diarrhea, and apparently during that time, early when he was hospitalized, health care workers were wearing a variety of protective gear.

INSKEEP: Improvising.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, they were wearing additional layers and taping the sleeves shut. The problem with that is more isn't necessarily better because when you take this contaminated stuff off, we know that there's a high risk for infecting yourself.

INSKEEP: 'Cause you have a situation where you've taped your sleeve on, and now you're peeling on the tape and so forth. It could be difficult - you could actually get it then, is what you're saying.


INSKEEP: So with all that in mind, how many other people now have to be followed and watched to see what happens to them?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, you know, the CDC is contacting people who were on the plane. There's about 50 contacts that the man from Liberia had before he was hospitalized. They're following those so far, they're all fine. There's about 50 other health care workers who were in his hospital room at some point, so those people are being monitored and watched. And the nurses who are now sick with Ebola did have contact with a few people before they were isolated. So those people are being watched.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you briefly about something we heard on the program yesterday. Tom Frieden of the CDC was quoted on this program as saying, health care workers around the country do not feel prepared to take on a patient with Ebola. Sounds like people are not as ready as they thought they were.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, that's acknowledging reality, how people feel in hospitals. I mean, previously the CDC had been saying that any hospital could take care of a patient with Ebola. There are now discussions about whether patients would be better off in specialized facilities. There's four of them around the country, but they have a limited number of beds. And if people keep coming back from West Africa with Ebola, they may need to be treated at other hospitals. And the CDC now says it has a go-team that it will immediately send to any hospital to advise on infection control.

INSKEEP: Nell, thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.