"When did Noah build the Ark?"
"I don't know."
"Before the Flood."
The nation is gripped with hysteria regarding the possibility of an Ebola epidemic. In my view, it has more than ample reason to be terrified. Our government has bungled the handling of this crisis from the outset. Confidence in government's ability to protect the populace is nil. That's not the people's problem. That's what happens when a government cannot demonstrate even a basic level of competence.
But, here's the real kicker. As scared as they are, the people of the United States are not nearly scared enough.
Everything we have seen to date, all the grounding of aircraft, cruise ship quarantines and discussion of travel bans is the product of the entry into the United States of one man. Stop and think about that for a second. One man with Ebola entered the United States and then voluntarily sought out treatment at a local hospital, and that is all it took for an entire "system", at every critical juncture imaginable, to fail.
What if this was a full-scale bio-terrorism attack? How many dead would there already be?
A year ago I wrote a novel, "Caffa
", about a fictional bio-terrorism attack on the United States. It was based on my work as head of CIA's WMD terrorism unit and on discussions I had with Tony Kimery, who writes for Homeland Security Today. The plot was built around the concept of what Tony has come to call "bio-martyrs", members of a terrorist group deliberately infected with a contagious disease and turned loose amongst the general public to spread the contagion through normal daily contact.
Let's consider for a moment, in light of what we have seen transpire in regard to Ebola, how that might play out. A dozen terrorist operatives are infected with the pneumonic form of the plague. That means their lungs are infected with the disease and that the disease is, therefore, airborne. It can be spread without any direct contact whatsoever.
The terrorists fan out across America and deliberately place themselves in proximity to the maximum number of individuals. A handful ride the New York subway system. All day. Others attend basketball games in crowded arenas, crisscross the nation by air and sit in movie theaters.
No announcement is made. No terrorist videos trumpeting the attack are released. Days pass. The attack has already begun, but no one yet knows that. We are behind the curve before we even realize we are under assault.
Family members of West Point district commissioner Miata Flowers flee the slum while being escorted by the Ebola Task Force. | Photo: John Moore | Ebola, Disease, Virus, Death, West Point, Task Force,
The first people infected with the plague begin to show up in emergency rooms around the country. As with the Ebola patient in Texas, they complain of general, "flu-like" symptoms. Overworked emergency room personnel, scrambling to keep their heads above water, do exactly what the doctors and nurses in Texas did. They tell the first wave of infected individuals to "take two aspirin and call them in the morning."
More time is lost.
A nurse with Doctors without Borders examines a patient in the in-take area at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Guekedou. on April 1, 2014. Ebola virus disease or Ebola hemorrhagic fever is the human disease caused by ebola viruses. | Photo: Seyllou | Link |
The number of infected people continues to grow. We are still ignorant that an attack is underway. The wildfire is already raging, and we cannot see the flames.
Then someone, somewhere makes a diagnosis. Maybe they are more alert than other medical personnel have been. Maybe the person who comes to them for treatment simply has symptoms so advanced that diagnosis is evident.
Other such diagnoses follow in rapid succession. Alarm bells begin to go off. CDC wakes up. The White House announces that it believes we are under attack by a group using a biological weapon and scrambles to mobilize resources.
How many days has it been? How many thousands of people have already been infected by the time we understand what is happening? How fast is the epidemic already spreading?
Now think about the halting, incompetent response we have seen to the handling of one single case of Ebola and consider what the chances are that the same bureaucracy that could not effectively manage that one case might even begin to be able to get ahead of the nationwide spread of a deadly, airborne disease. If you feel good about the chances, you are either not paying attention or you have a faith in miracles I do not share.
In late 2011 the Bi-Partisan WMD Terrorism Research Center issued its latest report card on American preparations for responding to a bio-terrorist attack. The results were scathing. In regard to preparations for dealing with a large-scale attack using a contagious pathogen the Center gave the United States government a grade of "C" for its plans to communicate with the public. In every other facet examined it gave a grade of "D" or "F". This despite that fact that as of 2011 the federal government had already spent $65 billion on bio defense.
Since 2011 the federal government, by the best estimates, has spent another $15 billion on preparations for responding to bio terrorism. And, yet, we were somehow completely unprepared to respond to the appearance of one case of Ebola.
The wording of the 2011 report was direct and unambiguous. In discussing planning for the coordination of a government response to an attack, the Center had this to say in part, " A catastrophic biological event in the United States would quickly overwhelm the capacity of an already-stressed health care system. Although there has been progress over the past decade, there is not yet a comprehensive approach to emergency medical response--from the individual citizen, through the first responder emergency medical system (EMS), to emergency departments, hospitals, and alternate sites of medical care... Federal medical resources and capabilities, including those residing in the Veteran's Administration (VA), Department of Defense (DoD), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have not been fully coordinated and exercised to support response to a large-scale biological disaster."
Translation: Federal agencies are not talking to each other and coordinating how to respond to an attack. There is no plan for coordinating all of the different entities that will be involved in such a response. No one is actually conducting exercises to take us from theoretical discussions and paper shuffling to being able to execute and perform in the field.
A prophet could not have been more precise. Witness the ridiculous and inexcusable conflict between the guidance given by CDC and the Department of Transportation regarding the removal of soiled linen and clothing from the home of Patient Zero after he was diagnosed with Ebola. CDC directed the items be collected, sealed in containers and moved to another location. The Department of Transportation immediately prohibited the movement and said that its regulations prohibited the transportation of medical waste in the manner proscribed.
We cannot afford this. Bio terrorism is not a fantasy or the stuff of science fiction films. It is reality, and we may be dealing with it any day. We do not need an Ebola Czar, whose real job is to handle damage control and "spinning" public opinion. We need hard-nosed, practical preparation. Time is running short. The deluge is coming. The time to build the Ark is now.