Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014


No one could have predicted that all the freaking out about Ebola was going to lead to  overreaction and stupidity.  Right.

A nurse returning to the U.S. after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone was rushed into quarantine in New Jersey because she showed a slightly elevated temperature.  It turned out to be a false alarm and she does not have the virus.  All well and good, you might say.  Except for the fact that she was treated like she had knocked over a bank.

I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.

At the hospital, I was escorted to a tent that sat outside of the building. The infectious disease and emergency department doctors took my temperature and other vitals and looked puzzled. “Your temperature is 98.6,” they said. “You don’t have a fever but we were told you had a fever.”

After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felts my neck and looked at the temperature again. “There’s no way you have a fever,” he said. “Your face is just flushed.”

My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative.

I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?

Of all the things America and Americans do well, dealing rationally with a crisis is not one of them.  The proportion of freakage over Ebola based on the number of people who have actually died within our borders is depressing, not to mention the allegedly responsible representatives in both the media and politics who are exploiting it for ratings and campaign contributions.  It’s a small blessing that the governor of New York has seen some light on this subject and backed off his P.O.W. approach, but it’s also scary that the go-to source for information on Ebola comes from Wikipedia.

We can make fun of the idiots in Congress who demand that the president turn to crisis over the Surgeon General, a post that is vacant because the same idiots in Congress blocked his confirmation.  We can shake our heads at the people who are proud to say they’re not scientists who declaim about the pathology of the virus.  We can make money off the rubes who think that they now need to add hazmat suits to their doomsday collection, but in the end all of this overreaction makes us forget that people are dying in a distant land — or in a school cafeteria — and we’re incapable of dealing with it like rational people.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Peak Fearmongering

Okay, I think we’ve reached the limit on Ebola fearmongering thanks to Mark Thiessen in the Washington Post.

Terrorists could collect samples of infected body fluids, and then place them on doorknobs, handrails or airplane tray tables, allowing Ebola to spread quietly before officials even realize that a biological attack has taken place.

Think it can’t happen? If an Ebola-infected Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was able to fly to Dallas, what is to stop an Ebola-infected terrorist from doing the same? And if our health-care system was unable to handle a single Ebola patient, imagine what would happen if 50, 100 or more Ebola patients started showing up at U.S. hospitals.

And Osama bin Laden will rise from his watery grave, grow wings, and hover over downtown Miami singing “Close To You.”  It will be a movie on SyFy with Dustin Hoffman and Kristin Chenoweth.

Seriously, folks; if Nigeria can contain Ebola, so can we.

Short Takes

Ebola — Travelers from West Africa must enter the U.S. through designated airports.

North Korea has released an Ohio man held since May for leaving a bible in a hotel room.

Ukrainian army appears to have fired cluster bombs in Donetsk.

Gary Hart to be U.S. representative to Northern Ireland.

Sweden chases undersea intruder.

World Series: Giants take Game 1.

Tropical Update: Invest 93L heads for the Yucatan.

R.I.P. Ben Bradlee, 93, former editor at the Washington Post; the real Jason Robards in All The President’s Men.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Don’t Panic — Ctd

Via the New York Times:

At least one chapter of the Ebola saga neared a close Sunday, as most of the dozens of people who had direct or indirect contact here with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died of Ebola, had been told by officials that they were no longer at risk of contracting the disease.

Mr. Duncan’s fiancée, Louise Troh, who nursed him in their cramped apartment while he suffered from diarrhea and who was put under state-ordered quarantine, was set to be declared Ebola-free by officials at the end of Sunday. So, too, were the paramedics who drove an ailing Mr. Duncan to a hospital and health care workers who drew or processed his blood. And a mandatory quarantine was lifted for a homeless man who later rode in the same ambulance as Mr. Duncan before it was disinfected.

The 21-day monitoring period ended Sunday and Monday for nearly all the roughly 50 people. It concludes as federal health officials are tightening the guidelines for the protective gear worn by health care workers treating Ebola patients.

Hear that, Fox News?  You are free now to find something else to obsess about.  Okay, how about a jihadist deliberately infecting himself and then taking the A train?  Have you worked that one out yet?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hazardous Material

Ebola can be controlled with the right precautions.  But there seems to have been a breakdown at the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Eric Duncan.  Via TPM:

A nurses’ union – which doesn’t represent the Dallas nurses but was enlisted to speak on their behalf – released a statement today detailing a mix of sloppiness, uncertain and evolving practical and lack of proper equipment in the first days of Thomas Eric Duncan’s stay at the hospital. But the more striking news – found in medical records obtained by the AP – is that there was apparently a critical two and one half days after Duncan was admitted to the hospital with a suspected case of Ebola but before his definitive diagnosis when hospital workers continued to operate without hazardous materials protective gear.

I’m not a doctor or a healthcare worker, but I think even a layman knows that when you’re running the risk of being exposed to an infectious disease, be it a head cold or Ebola, you wear protective gear.  (My dentist wears a mask and gloves when he’s flossing my teeth.)  It’s not like the hospital didn’t know that there was an epidemic of Ebola going on somewhere in the world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Reading

Micromanager In Chief — David Rohde and Warren Strobel in The Atlantic review President Obama’s management of national security.

This account of Obama’s national-security decision-making is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former U.S. government officials, who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations going back to President Richard Nixon.

In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security—a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.

On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.

The president, initially perceived as one of the greatest communicators of his generation, is now viewed as having done a poor job of defining and defending his foreign policy, polls indicate. A majority of Americans—54 percent—disapprove of Obama’s foreign-policy performance, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. That’s one of the lowest ratings of his presidency.

Rhodes, one of Obama’s longest-serving national-security aides, says a series of complex world crises, not policy mistakes, has driven down the president’s approval numbers. More broadly, he says, Obama has been right to be deliberative in the wake of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What he’s always said is that if there’s a threat against us, we will act,” Rhodes said. “But when it comes to shaping events in cultures that are foreign to the United States we have to have some degree of realism.”

Obama has had notable national-security successes. His record of protecting U.S. territory from attack remains largely unblemished. Current and former officials praise his policy on nuclear talks with Iran as clear and consistent. He is building a coalition against Islamic State that includes Arab nations participating in airstrikes with the United States, Britain, France, and others.

And while past presidents faced grave dangers, most notably the possibility of Cold War Armageddon, for Obama the world is very different. The decisions he must make on using U.S. military force have multiplied. This reality, supporters say, is overlooked by detractors.

Obama has launched a humanitarian military intervention in Libya; overseen counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; moved to end his predecessor’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; wrestled with lethal threats to U.S. hostages and diplomatic posts; and sent the American military to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola virus and search for kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.

Current and former officials say the globalized world of Twitter and 24/7 news creates an expectation at home and abroad that the United States will quickly take a position on any foreign-policy issue. The demand for instant American positions—and American leadership—can be overwhelming.

“One of the biggest problems in Washington,” said retired General James Jones, who was Obama’s national security advisor from 2009 to 2010, “is to find the time to think strategically, not tactically. You’d wake up and there would be a new crisis and you’d be scrambling to deal with them.”

The Perils of Rick Scott — Charlie Pierce on the governor’s race down here.

As if the biggest Medicare fraud case in history didn’t tip us off already, Florida Governor Rick Scott is little more than Florida Man writ large and dressed better. Those who are aware of all Internet traditions know that Florida Man is profoundly self-explanatory. You say Florida Man, and your companion knows that all manner of hullabaloo and shenanigans are likely to follow, from a bank robbery to a busload of nuns fed to the burgeoning python community in the Everglades. Florida Man. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes’s assessment of Dr. Watson, Florida man is the stormy petrel of criminal crazy. And, while Governor Batboy is Florida Man in a fine suit, in his heart, and increasingly in the public mind, he is running out his backdoor, barefoot, his mullet flapping in the breeze, with half the local sheriff’s department and a film crew from Cops in pursuit, while the local DA wonders about the human heads in the icebox.

Or something.

Florida’s Sunshine Laws — and yes, Florida, we see what you did there — require that state officials must disclose completely any assets worth more than $1000. A lawsuit filed by George Sheldon, a Democratic candidate for attorney-general, charges that Scott has played fast and loose with this constitutional requirement. (Back in the 1970’s, then-governor Reubin Askew fought hard and won a battle to include these disclosure rules as an amendment to the Florida constitution. Askew’s cause was helped immeasurably by the fact that he pitched his amendment immediately after three elected cabinet members and three justices of the Florida Supreme Court all resigned behind allegations of corruption. So, yeah, they’re quite serious about it.) In addition, a recent joint investigation by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times has raised questions about whether or not Scott is hiding his money through creative accounting and bookkeeping legerdemain.

The governor, for instance, does not disclose the entire value of assets that reside in different trust and partnership accounts and for which he’s listed in federal records as the “beneficial owner,” according to an extensive Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times review of hundreds of federal and state documents filed in Florida, Washington, Connecticut, Texas, Nevada and Illinois. The documents also show: Information about Scott’s income and investments provided on state disclosure forms differ from financial information he furnished to the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission; the various Scott family investment trusts and partnerships often act in tandem with his blind trust and involve Scott’s long-time financial advisors – raising questions about how independent the trust is from the governor; between 2009 and 2013, the income reported on the governor’s state financial disclosure and the income reported to the IRS differed each year, fluctuating as much as $41 million in a single year.

That’s a helluva fluctuation right there. I wish I could fluctuate on that level. So do many other people. Then there’s this Solantic thing, a health care delivery concern from which Scott derived much of his considerable fortune. When he ran for governor, in order to avoid regulatory conflicts of interest, Scott put the Solantic assets into a revocable — important adjective alert! — trust named after his wife. Except, of course, Scott was out there again, fluctuating so uncontrollably that he apparently couldn’t avoid those pesky conflicts of interest.

Federal documents submitted to the SEC in other transactions show the governor was the trust’s “beneficial owner” and therefore had a major say over its assets. Still, after Scott transferred the money to a trust to which he retained control, he said that he had nothing to do with Solantic any longer. “I’m not involved in that company,” Scott said on March 29, 2011, while at the same time he huddled with his attorneys and helped negotiate the sale to a private-equity firm with which he had done business in the past. Two weeks later, he announced the pending sale. He said at the time that he had sold it for less than $62 million.

I have very little sympathy for the electorate on this one. Florida voters allowed this guy to buy his way into office knowing that he’d presided over a company that had paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle a massive Medicare fraud case, one that arose from the kind of double-bookkeeping that the Herald and the Times imply is going on now with Scott’s treatment of his assets. Scott has maintained for years that he was unaware that his old company was on the fiddle. His former accountant, who became the primary whistleblower in the fraud case, says otherwise, and continues to say so to this day. Scott’s in a life-and-death situation for re-election against Charlie Crist, the former Republican who is now a Democrat. I suspect all this will come up when they debate.

Fear Factor — Michael Specter in The New Yorker on the hysteria over Ebola in America.

Fear is not a weakness; it’s how people respond to danger. Unless it is calibrated properly, however, fear quickly turns into panic, and panic moves faster than any virus. Diseases that get the most attention and cause the greatest anxiety are rarely those which claim the most lives. Malaria, tuberculosis, and H.I.V. have killed hundreds of thousands of people this year. Fewer than a thousand people died in the 2003 SARS epidemic, but a report by the National Academy of Sciences notes that its cost to the global economy—not only in medical expenditures but in lost trade, productivity, and investment—was almost forty billion dollars.

At least four thousand people have already died of Ebola, the economic impact of the epidemic has been calamitous, and every day the numbers get worse. But we need to stop acting as if the tragedy unfolding in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone could happen here on anything like the same scale. There will be more cases of Ebola in the United States, but unless something remarkably unlikely develops, such as a mutation that makes it easier for the virus to spread, the epidemic can be stopped. Ebola is difficult to contract, and although viruses mutate constantly, once they are established in humans they do not generally alter their mode of transmission.

That message is not getting through. According to a Harris poll taken just before Duncan’s diagnosis, forty per cent of Americans believed that Ebola represented a major or a moderate threat to public health in the United States. Thirty-seven per cent thought that the H1N1 influenza epidemic of 2009 posed a similar threat. The two outbreaks are not comparable. H1N1 infected about twenty per cent of the world’s population, including sixty million Americans. A catastrophe was averted owing solely to a biological fluke: the death rate of those infected was unusually low—there were more than twelve thousand fatalities in the U.S., but that is far fewer than die from the flu in most years.

Our response to pandemics—whether SARS, avian influenza, MERS, or Ebola—has become predictable. First, there is the panic. Then, as the pandemic ebbs, we forget. We can’t afford to do either. This epidemic won’t be over soon, but that is even more reason to focus on what works. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone all need more money, more health-care workers, and more troops to help coördinate relief efforts. In the short term, the only way to halt the epidemic is with better infection-control measures. In Senegal and Nigeria, two countries where poverty and health problems are pervasive, the most basic such measures—contact tracing, quarantine, and proper protections for health workers—seem to have had a positive effect. (Part of the success in Nigeria is also due to the fact that officials made an enormous effort to keep the virus out of Lagos, a city of twenty million people.)

We also need to take better advantage of our scientific tools. Advances in molecular and synthetic biology have begun to provide a sophisticated understanding of the genetic composition of viruses. We are increasingly able to make vaccines by assembling synthetic proteins as if they were molecular Legos. Rob Carlson, the author of “Biology Is Technology,” who has written widely about genetic engineering and vaccine development, says, “We could have pushed the development of a synthetic Ebola vaccine a decade ago. We had the skills, but we chose not to pursue it. Why? Because we weren’t the people getting sick.” One day, a virus that matches our sense of doom may come along. Until then, we will need to rely on data and evidence—not theatrics or fear.

Doonesbury — The best-laid plans.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Short Takes

There’s a gun battle with ISIS going on in the Turkish border town of Kobani.

Five airports are stepping up screening of passengers arriving from West Africa.

Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient from Liberia who traveled to Dallas, died yesterday.

Idaho and Nevada: Justice Anthony Kennedy granted emergency stays on marriage equality, then lifted the one on Nevada.

White House alarmed by JP Morgan security breach.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Killer Virus

There’s a deadly virus that causes severe respiratory illness.  So far it’s killed at least four people in the U.S. and it is spreading.  No, it’s not Ebola.

Samples collected from four patients who recently died have tested positive for enterovirus D68, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is unclear what role the virus played in their deaths. In fact, it’s possible that enterovirus had nothing to do with them. The virus is very common, especially in the late summer and early fall, with the CDC estimating 10 million to 15 million infections each year in the United States.

Yet the deaths do raise an alarm because this year has been worse than some other years, since enterovirus D68 has been sending more children than usual to the hospital with severe respiratory illnesses. It seems to be most affecting children with a history of asthma or breathing problems.

As of Wednesday, the CDC had confirmed 500 people in 42 states have respiratory illnesses caused by enterovirus D68.

But so far all the attention and freak-out has been over one case of Ebola and the patient is, thankfully, still alive.

This is not to minimize the danger of Ebola, but it makes you wonder why it is getting all the attention with BREAKING NEWS banners and special music on the cable channels when there’s a disease that’s actually killing people here.  Could it be that Ebola came from Africa and everyone knows that Africa is a scary place with people who scare people, as opposed to a plain old American virus that just kills kids as they breathe?

Short Takes

The leader of Hong Kong refused to resign in the face of the Umbrella movement.

ISIS is pressing their attack on border towns in Syria and Iraq.

None of the 100 people who came in contact with the Ebola patient in Texas are showing symptoms.

Oil prices are dropping; crude is under $90 a barrel.

JP Morgan hacked; over 76 million households affected.

The Tigers got walloped 12-3 by the Orioles in Game 1 of the ALDS.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Don’t Panic

Via the New York Times:

A man who took a commercial flight from Liberia that landed in Dallas on Sept. 20 has been found to have the Ebola virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Tuesday. He is the first traveler to have brought the virus to the United States on a passenger plane.

He was not ill during the flight, health officials said. Symptoms developed several days after he arrived, and he is being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

I will give you the next thirty seconds to freak out.

Okay, that’s enough.  Calm down.  Ebola is not contagious when there are no symptoms, and the patient exhibited none during his flight or for several days after.  The only way to contract it is through direct contact with body fluids such as blood or semen.  It is not airborne, nor can you catch it by shaking hands with someone who is asymptomatic.  In short, it is as communicable as AIDS.

Now comes the infection: the political kind.  Count on the Orcosphere to go bananas and of course they will blame President Obama because he said a couple of weeks ago that Ebola coming to the United States was “unlikely.”  But the good folks at Fox News will assure you that he said that because either he is hopelessly naive or it’s a secret plot he’s hatched to distract us from Benghazi! or just kill us all because he hates America.  (Hint: notice that the patient went to Texas.  This proves that President Obama wants to kill Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz, and anyone there who voted against him.)

I am sure we all hope that the patient will have an uneventful and swift recovery.  I doubt that the wingnuts will recover as soon as he does.

Footnote:  Get the facts on Ebola here.