Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ebola, and the stupidity of categorical statements from public officials

Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a categorical statement about the new case of Ebola in Texas. The CDC Director, Dr. Tom Frieden, made the following statement:

At some point, there was a breach in protocol, and that breach in protocol resulted in this infection. The (Ebola treatment) protocols work. ... But we know that even a single lapse or breach can result in infection.
However, the CDC went on to state that they had spoken with the nurse and could NOT determine what the failure in procedures was. They do not know what, if anything, the nurse or anyone else did wrong.

While it is most likely true that this new case was a result of a failure to observe safety protocols, the CDC should not be making categorical statements. And here's why.

Taken from the President's remarks on September 16, 2014 [the President's remarks are in block quotes, my responses are not]:
First and foremost, I want the American people to know that our experts, here at the CDC and across our government, agree that the chances of an Ebola outbreak here in the United States are extremely low.
Within three days, an asymptomatic infected person was on his way to the USA via plane.  So much for the consensus view of the experts.
We’ve been taking the necessary precautions, including working with countries in West Africa to increase screening at airports so that someone with the virus doesn’t get on a plane for the United States.
Wrong. See previous comment. The methodologies for screening were so rigorous that lying and Ibuprofen could beat them. Given how easily Duncan entered the country, the chances of this happening were not "extremely low."
In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.  We’re working to help flight crews identify people who are sick, and more labs across our country now have the capacity to quickly test for the virus.
This one appears to be true. Thank God some of it was.
We’re working with hospitals to make sure that they are prepared, and to ensure that our doctors, our nurses and our medical staff are trained, are ready, and are able to deal with a possible case safely.
So prepared that they got an Ebola victim and sent him home with anti-biotics. And so prepared that according to the CDC itself the medical staff at the hospital in Texas were too poorly trained to implement the procedures correctly.

Three out of four sentences wrong, although at least the President's speech writers stuck in a slight qualifier in the first sentence.

This is why the CDC should not have made the categorical statement they made regarding the new case in Texas. By doing so they look arrogant, and look especially stupid in light of the President's comments from September 16th, which were no doubt made after the relevant people from the CDC had made their views known to the President and his staff. As it is, they look like the jerk-off NASA administrators who said that the chance of a shuttle failure resulting in catastrophic loss of life and equipment were one in millions or less. It erodes their credibility, and does not reassure the public.

NOTE: I am not implying the President or his advisers were lying on September 16th or today. Perhaps they are, but that isn't proven and I will give them the benefit of the doubt. But the remarks from September 16th have serious credibility issues, and today's comments left them no wiggle room should the new statement be incorrect. And even if their belief is correct, today's statement projects arrogance, which is off-putting to say the least.
Instead, the CDC should have released a statement worded something like this:
We’re confident that our safety protocols are effective and believe that one or more of these protocols were likely breached resulting in this additional case. We are working with the infected nurse and her coworkers to determine exactly what happened. We will work diligently to insure no further breaches of established best practices, or if we need to revise our protocols.
That would have been reassuring without projecting know-it-all arrogance.

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