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Meet the disease detectives tracking Ebola at the CDC

October 8, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
Go inside the Emergency Operations Center at the CDC, the information hub where doctors and scientists are at the front lines of the effort to contain and control the Ebola virus. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports from Atlanta on the challenges of keeping up with the fast-moving epidemic.

GWEN IFILL: This was a sobering day in the battle against the Ebola outbreak. As the death toll climbed, the first patient diagnosed in the United States died, and plans for screening ramped up at major American airports. The CDC is at the center of the government’s response, both here and abroad.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery got an inside look at how the agency is tackling the job.

MAN: CDC Emergency Operations Center. This line is being recorded. Watch officer Baker speaking.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The Emergency Operations Center at CDC headquarters in Atlanta never sleeps. A quiet hum belies the frenzy of activity here.

WOMAN: This phone number, it’s under 2014 Ebola International.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: This is the nerve center for the effort to contain and control the Ebola virus.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden:

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: We work to protect Americans, and we do that with boots on the ground in every state, in 50 countries around the world. We do that by the top-quality science and scientists and we do that by action.

GORDON MAY, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: We are the watch team here at the CDC. We are basically like the CDC’s 911.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Gordon May oversees the watch station, which gets calls from the public, the media and health officials.

GORDON MAY: They’re seeking information on what to do with their patients. They’re seeking information on waste disposal. They’re also seeking information on protocols in the event that they do receive an Ebola patient.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The questions are fielded by others, about 150 in all who work in this high-tech hub. Plasma screens display giant maps pinpointing places the virus has been found and areas where even more CDC staff have been deployed.

WOMAN: Hey, good morning, everybody. Welcome to Monday, day 90 of the EOC activation.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Top managers meet daily to exchange updates on the number of cases and the global response.

Dr. Barbara Mahon attends that meeting. Her team is monitoring the Texas investigation into the first case diagnosed in the U.S. and tracking people who may have been in contact with Thomas Duncan. After serious missteps in Dallas, the CDC and others faced a flurry of criticism, including the hospital’s response when Duncan arrived.

DR. BARBARA MAHON, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: I guess the way I look at it is that preparedness is really a process. It’s not a stage or an activity. It’s a process. It’s a state of mind. And so what we need to do in this situation is to learn everything we can from those bumps in the road to try to make it go better if — and, hopefully, there won’t be, but if there is another case.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The CDC’s attention goes well beyond the U.S. border. The Global Migration Group focuses on air and sea travel, including outreach to passengers.

The group’s leader is Dr. Marty Centron.

DR. MARTY CENTRON, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The most important thing that we’re trying to do is help fill in the gap between the public health sector and transportation sector in terms of readiness.

Our job is to train people how to ask questions about symptoms, how to ask questions about exposure and risk, whether they had contact with an Ebola case, and how to measure objectively in a safe way temperatures of people who are intending to leave, identify those people, and move them out and prevent them — prevent sick people from getting on airplanes that could potentially spread.

MAN: Are you focusing mostly on Liberia?

AIMEE SUMMERS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: No, all of the…

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Epidemiologist Aimee Summers is a disease detective just back from Liberia. More people have died there than any other country. Summers helped find those who may have been exposed, a process called contact tracing.

AIMEE SUMMERS: There are a lot of challenges in Liberia, and I think probably the most challenging part of it is that there’s a lot of stigma attached to people over there, so people are basically running away, because nobody wants to be associated with it.

So there is one case that we went out with. And by the time we got there, all of the contacts who were associated with that case had fled the area.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Teams in West Africa process specimens to determine if patients have Ebola. Here in Atlanta, scientists are working on genetic sequencing to see if the virus changes.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: I worry when people have irrational fears of Ebola. But there are rational fears as well. If you’re a health care worker taking care of a patient with Ebola, you better be scared and you better use that fear to make sure that you do absolutely everything right when you’re caring for that patient.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The CDC has sent scores of its own staff to Africa, but many more are needed. That’s why they’re offering hands-on exercises like this one in Alabama earlier this week.

Thirty-six health care workers came to this rural spot to learn how to put on personal protective equipment, suits, masks, boots, and gloves.

Dr. Michael Jhung, an influenza expert who has turned his focus to Ebola, put the curriculum together.

DR. MICHAEL JHUNG, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What we try to do is create a facility here that mimics an Ebola treatment unit in West Africa.

We’re not trying to recreate the U.S. hospital, where there’s much higher levels of technology available, and we’re not trying to recreate a general hospital in West Africa. It’s a specific facility for caring for Ebola patients. What we ask our students to do is do a practical exercise, a hands-on exercise every day of the three-day course. Today, they did a simulated blood draw.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: For Nurse Heather Bedlion, drawing blood is easy, but wearing heavy gear will make her job tougher when she leaves for Liberia this weekend.

HEATHER BEDLION, Volunteer Nurse, Partners In Health:It’s warm here. It’s hot in West Africa. So, goggles fogging, of course, that’s a little bit — a bit of a challenge — it’s a lot of a challenge. Being able to see of course is a big challenge.

The dexterity of your hands to make sure that you draw — handle any sort of fluids that could possibly infect you is most important, and making sure that you do that safely.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Captain Paul Reed will be in charge of clinical operations at the new hospital the U.S. is building in Liberia. The Public Health Service doctor has been deployed to hot spots many times, but for the father of four this, assignment feels different.

DR. PAUL REED, Captain, U.S. Public Health Service: My family is used to me traveling and being deployed for a number of different reasons over a long period of time, a 20-year career. This one has a little bit different flavor, obviously, and there’s some expressed anxiety on the part of my wife and my kids, as you can imagine.

But I think, generally, they know I’m going to be smart about what needs to be done, and I will make sure that I’m safe, as well as the folks that I’m taking care of are safe.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: But training doesn’t happen overnight. The challenge is keeping pace with the fast-moving epidemic.

DR. MICHAEL JHUNG: We can run 35 to 40 students per course. We can run one course per week. We intend to run a course every week until the demand goes away, and if that takes a year or two, we will run it for a year or two.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: A single control lapse can result in an infection of a health care worker, so we really want to make sure that it’s done well. And that’s why we’re doing this detailed, in-depth training for anyone who wants to go over and assist with the response as an initial training.

But, also, the stakes are so high in Africa. If we don’t stop it in West Africa, the risk of it spreading to other parts of Africa is very great. And if that happens, it could be around for years and a global threat for years, and that would have impact on how we do medical care in this country. That would have impact on travel and trade and economies and political stability. So the stakes are very high.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Those high stakes drive the CDC effort, but the question remains, can the agency move fast enough to combat the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen?

GWEN IFILL: Online, you can hear more from the health care workers we talked to on what’s going through their minds as they prepare to go to West Africa. That’s at