Public health officials continue to track the well being of about 50 patients in Dallas who may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. As of Tuesday morning, there was no sign any of them was infected.
The labor-intensive surveillance operation is being run by local health officials and a pair of epidemiologists for the CDC. The two are officers in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.
With the Ebola outbreak growing, these so-called "disease detectives" are taking on an increasingly important role.
Let’s be honest, there’s something a little nuts about being in the Epidemic Intelligence Service—a job where you could get plopped into a communicable disease hotspot with little warning.
“What’s the type of person who wants to walk into an Ebola outbreak instead of walk away from it,” says Jennifer Hunter.
Hunter is one of the two EIS officers in Dallas who is keeping tabs on the several dozen people who came into contact with the Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan.
“I think there is nothing more you can do to help be part of something as large as this is and as important,” she says.
EIS alum Tracy Creek describes most EIS folks as “passionate, geeky, problem solvers” dedicated to public service. Every year, the CDC hires 70 to 80 people to spend two years tackling everything from smoking cessation to H1N1 outbreaks.
Creek says the EIS logo sums up their work: “It’s a sole of a shoe with a hole worn in it; you’re supposed to be the feet on the ground of our public health infrastructure,” she says.
Yep, a logo that could of been dreamed up by Dashiell Hammett.
Certainly EIS officers in Dallas earned their disease detective badge this past week as they tracked down doctors and nurses; lab techs and custodial staff; anyone who may have handled the patient’s fluids. But that’s just one part of the job.
EIS officers must solve problems and be a kind of fixer; a challenge in some corners of West Africa.
“We are not fully meeting demand and it’s a very challenging situation,” says Peter Kilmarx, who for nearly the past month has been running CDC’s operations in Sierra Leone.
One problem Kilmarx’s got is lining up enough burial teams to pick up the highly infectious bodies. Handle them wrong and the disease spreads.
“There’ve been deaths among burial team drivers and staff. At times when there is a call about a cadaver in the community, we’re not able to have a quick response,” he says.
In some sense, the solution is straight forward. Kilmarx needs more money—for protective gear, staff, ambulances. But with the number of people dying nearly doubling every month, Kilmarx says resources are stretched.
“We’re barely keeping up with what we’ve got, and thinking ahead to twice as many 30 days from now is daunting,” he says.
In the past, when Kilmarx needed three laptops, or three motorcycles, he just tapped the non-profit CDC Foundation—which cuts checks quicker than the agency.
The speed of this epidemic means there’s more going out the Foundation’s door than is coming in. And now, Kilmarx has another problem to solve.