Sometimes, there are only a few uncomfortable degrees between caution and panic.
On Thursday, the School of Communications at Syracuse University told a Washington Post photographer that he no longer was invited to a teaching event this week at the school.
The photographer, Michael du Cille, was in Liberia last month covering the Ebola outbreak.
du Cille had returned to the U.S. 21 days ago, which happens to be the incubation period for Ebola. He’d been taking his temperature at least twice a day, as Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend. He was still working.
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In fact, when du Cille got word Thursday from Syracuse, he’d just finished photographing CDC director Thomas Frieden in Atlanta. So du Cille, understandably, is unhappy. Lots of others are, too. “The pandemic of stupidity is upon us,” said one tweeter.
The dean of the communications school, Lorraine Branham, seems to understand. She was almost sheepish Thursday in explaining how students had expressed concerns about du Cille’s visit. Parents, she said, were going to be upset, too.
But she also said: “There have been questions raised about whether the incubation period is longer...”
We are at a delicate point with Ebola in the U.S. Last month, the CDC’s Frieden assured the country that “we will stop Ebola in its tracks.” Now two health workers have the virus after treating an Ebola patient, and the CDC isn’t exactly sure how they got it.
“Stopping Ebola is hard,” Frieden said this week.
Still, Ebola is not a new disease with unknown tendencies. It’s been around for decades, long enough for scientists to generally understand how it spreads and how it can be contained.
So I don’t believe we’re headed for an Ebola outbreak. But I’m not ready to ridicule caution, either.
We have a funny, selfish relationship with science. Like many things, we appreciate it when we agree with it – not so much when it tells us to push away that plate of fries.
On weeks like this one, though, science demands a little more from us. “Facts, not fear” we hear, even as our inner worriers say, “But what if?”
And both are right. Science offers the smartest, most definitive estimate we have of things, but it evolves like any other knowledge. Things science was sure of decades ago are not true now. Things science said were healthy – including medical treatments – have turned out to be problematic.
But ultimately, with Ebola, we have to choose a side.
Do we believe what research and history tells us about how the virus is spread, or do we prevent a non-symptomatic photographer from visiting a school? Do we believe what medical professionals say about containment, or do we close our borders, close our schools, hide our children?
Some of us will choose the former. We’ll take a deep breath and trust science, because the alternative is a paralyzing fear. That’s not a life we want, at least until we don’t have a choice.
All of which might be put to the test soon. Flu season is approaching, and emergency rooms in Charlotte will be filled with coughs and fevers.
Some of the feverish will be people who’ve traveled abroad, or people who’ve been in contact with them.
Hospitals will admit and test some of those patients for Ebola, just in case. They’ll also announce it, just in case. People will freak out.
Maybe by then, the CDC will have a firmer grip on what happened in Texas. For all of us, it had better. Because as we’ve already learned, fear is a lot more powerful than facts.