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The first Ebola death on U.S. soil has stunned and saddened doctors and relatives — and now it has people asking if the risk has changed for anyone else.
Thomas Eric Duncan died on Wednesday at Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, a sobering death after three other patients were cured. Their doctors said they hoped quick treatment and good supportive care helped them recover.
Duncan’s death raises questions about that, but it doesn’t change the risk for the 10 people who were in close contact with him while he was sick, and the nearly 50 others who may have had some sort of contact. They’re being monitored for 21 days, taking their temperatures twice a day and being closely questioned by health workers, to make sure they don’t get sick.
"The doctors, nurses and staff at Presbyterian provided excellent and compassionate care, but Ebola is a disease that attacks the body in many ways," Dr. David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in a statement. "We'll continue every effort to contain the spread of the virus and protect people from this threat."
Although Duncan died, it doesn’t mean he was somehow more infectious before he died, however, and it doesn’t mean that people who were not considered at high risk before are at any higher risk now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and doctors who have treated Ebola patients for decades say patients are not infectious at all before they develop symptoms that include fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
"We'll continue every effort to contain the spread of the virus and protect people from this threat."
No one who flew on a plane with Duncan is at risk, because he wasn’t sick when he flew. Those at highest risk are the health care workers who treated him when he came into the hospital, and family members who were with him in the days after he became ill and before he entered the hospital.
The death also doesn’t change the equation for two other Americans fighting Ebola — NBC freelance camera operator Ashoka Mukpo, being treated at the University of Nebraska medical center, and an unnamed U.S. physician being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
CDC officials say it’s entirely possible more people with Ebola will come into the U.S. in the coming weeks and months. It takes an average of 8 to 10 days to get sick after exposure to the virus, so people can travel feeling perfectly healthy and become ill after arrival.
And CDC and the World Health Organization say all countries can expect more patients so long as Ebola continues to spread in West Africa. WHO said Wednesday that 8,033 have been diagnosed with Ebola and 3,879 have died — and says this is almost certainly an underestimate.
CDC and Customs & Border Protection said it would add new layers of entry screening at five U.S. airports that most travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone: New York’s JFK International Airport, Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta. These include Travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will be escorted by CBP to an area of the airport set aside for screening.
“Trained CBP staff will observe them for signs of illness, ask them a series of health and exposure questions and provide health information for Ebola and reminders to monitor themselves for symptoms. Trained medical staff will take their temperature with a non-contact thermometer,” CDC said in a statement.
But CDC says it’s far more effective to screen people before they leave affected countries.
“In the last two months since exit screening began in the three countries, of 36,000 people screened, 77 people were denied boarding a flight because of the health screening process. None of the 77 passengers were infected with Ebola and many were diagnosed as ill with malaria, a disease common in West Africa, transmitted by mosquitoes and not contagious from one person to another,” CDC said.