Actually, you CAN be too careful when it comes to Ebola

I’ve seen a lot of pieces and tweets recently saying that we can’t be too careful about Ebola. They say that people’s fears are justified. They say that it’s better to make many, many people get screened rather than miss one case. Like this:

There’s just one confirmed case of an Ebola patient reaching the United States, but that hasn’t stopped fear of the disease from reaching our shores. And, soon, our emergency rooms are likely to be filled with fearful patients.

A Pew survey found this week that 32 percent of Americans are very worried or somewhat worried that they or a family member will contract Ebola. “The nation is frightened and people are frightened of [Ebola],” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Thursday morning. “They’re frightened because it has a very high mortality rate. They’re frightened because they need to learn what the facts are of that disease.”

There have been at least 5,000 Ebola false alarms in the week since Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed in Dallas on Sept. 30, as Forbes points out. We know from past outbreaks there will be a lot of unnecessary trips to the emergency room amid heightened fears.

Let’s be clear. Time is a limited resource. So is attention. I understand people’s concerns about Ebola, but if we fill our offices and hospitals with people fearful of a disease they have almost no risk of having, then the people working there cannot focus on people who might actually be at risk. Kids with asthma attacks will wait. Adults having heart attacks will wait. Elderly people having strokes will wait. That has a cost.

When we have airport personnel screening every passenger for Ebola, even when the risk is minimal, then everyone will be delayed. That has an economic cost. Moreover, while they’re focused on Ebola, they won’t be focused on actual, you know, terrorism.*

Being in an emergency room isn’t without risk, either. We’re entering influenza season. It’s a bad idea to be sitting in a packed room full of people who have a really contagious disease that is actually common.


*I’m not saying the terrorism isn’t overblown, too, but if you are concerned about that, then this has implications.

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