A review of officials' statements and tweets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the last three weeks reveals several subtle but important changes to the language the CDC has used when discussing Ebola.
Some of those changes seem to indicate the CDC may itself be learning on the fly about the virus, even as it seeks to reassure the American public that it fully understands the situation.
A review of language used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its director, Dr. Tom Frieden, indicates the CDC's view of Ebola may be changing over the last few weeks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
For example, one key change that emerged last week is on the question of whether Ebola could become airborne. CDC Director Tom Frieden indicated on Thursday that the answer to that question may not be as clear as the CDC has said since early October.
At best, the changes to various CDC messages may just indicate an inconsistency at the public affairs level, and may not indicate holes in the CDC's knowledge about the virus. But even if that's the case, the changes could be a factor in the growing distrust some have in the CDC to give people the straight information they need about the virus.
Based on a review of CDC messages, tweets, testimony and other statements over the last three weeks, the CDC's language has changed as it relates to four key questions.
Is Ebola Airborne, or Has It Become Airborne?
When Thomas Duncan became the first U.S. patient ever in the U.S. to be diagnosed with Ebola, health officials said immediately that Ebola cannot be spread through the air. Edward Goodman, an epidemiologist with the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, said "Ebola is not transmitted by the air."
#Ebola is not spread through casual contact or through the air.— CDC (@CDCgov) September 30, 2014
For the first few weeks, that message was backed up by a few CDC tweets as well. And even after it was announced on Oct. 12 that nurse Nina Pham had the virus, Frieden assured the public that Ebola is not airborne. "[I]t is not a disease that spreads through the air," he said.
But on Oct. 16, in testimony before a House subcommittee, Frieden's prepared statement made a subtle but possibly critical change. He was far less definitive in his prepared remarks, and instead addressed the question by saying, "Evidence does not suggest Ebola is spread through the air." Notably, that testimony was delivered after a second nurse was diagnosed with Ebola.
Can Infection Take Place Through Contact with someone's Sweat?
The CDC seems to have backtracked on some of its initial advice about whether contact with someone's sweat could spread Ebola. On Oct. 8, the CDC tweeted that while Ebola has been found in sweat, sweat does not seem to transmit the virus. Another tweet said the virus is most commonly transmitted through urine, blood and feces).
But on Oct. 16, after the two U.S. nurses had tested positive for Ebola, the CDC tweeted out a new chart describing all the ways Ebola can spread, which included a much broader list, including sweat:
When Does a Fever Qualify as a Symptom of Ebola?
The CDC confused thousands of people across the country last week when Frieden said the second nurse to come down with Ebola "reported no symptoms and no fever" before she flew on a plane from Cleveland to Dallas. That was quickly followed up by the news that the nurse, Amber Vinson, reported a low-grade fever to the CDC before she flew.
While it was known that Vinson treated Duncan and could be at risk of contracting the virus, the CDC's decision appeared to be based not on the idea that she didn't report a fever, but on the idea that her fever wasn't high enough. Still, Frieden has said a few times that Vinson did not report any symptoms.
Frieden confused the matter more on Oct. 15 by saying the low-grade fever she did report should have been enough to prevent her from flying. But even as he said that, Frieden also continued to say Vinson "did not report any symptoms."
Based on those statements, the CDC appears to have taken the position that a low-grade fever is not a symptom at all. However, the CDC has declined to answer questions from TheBlaze about whether the CDC believes a low-grade fever below 100.4 degrees is not seen as a "symptom" by the agency.
On Friday, however, the CDC appeared to make that point, by saying Vinson "did not fall into any of the risk categories that required restriction of movement based on CDC's movement and monitoring guidelines."
At the same time, the CDC has raised further questions about its own policy guidance, by asking passengers on Vinson's original flight on Oct. 10 from Dallas to Cleveland to contact the CDC for possible examination. That flight occurred days before Vinson's light fever was reported on Oct. 13.
At this point, the CDC's position on when it sees fever as a symptom of Ebola appears to still be evolving.
Can You Get Ebola by Sitting Next to Someone Who Sneezes?
The CDC initially indicated there was almost nothing to fear about catching Ebola from the sneeze of an infected person. On Oct. 2, the CDC tweeted that Ebola is "very unlikely to spread thru cough/sneeze."
In a briefing with reporters, Frieden downplayed the chance of transmission through sneezing by saying it could happen in "theoretical situations," and indicated the CDC was not concerned about sneezes.
"I think realistically you can say what may be theoretically possible as opposed to what actually happens in the real world and focusing our attention on those who may be at risk because they did have contact with body fluids or with the patient directly when he was sick," he said.
By Oct. 8, however, the CDC seemed to elevate the issue by tweeting that if a person sneezes and saliva or mucus makes contact with someone's eyes, nose or mouth, "disease may be spread."