Jacobson Brings Analytics Expertise to Ebola Screening
Last year, the world watched as Ebola again appeared in West Africa. In prior outbreaks, the disease surged but would soon disappear as doctors and other aid workers moved in to help the sick and contain the spread of the disease.
In 2014 the United States saw just how fragile this containment could be. In September 2014, a man who had flown from Monrovia to Dallas by way of Brussels and Washington became the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola while on U.S. soil. Soon after two healthcare workers who had been treating this patient also became infected.
Suddenly the disease was a very real U.S. health problem.
The press turned to CS Professor Sheldon H. Jacobson for answers. In August, Jacobson had been contacted by a reporter for Defense One—a journal covering U.S. defense and national security policy—to comment on how Jacobson’s research in airline security analytics could apply to Ebola screening. “I said there are some similarities and some differences,” Jacobson said. “[Ebola’s] a lot harder.”
Following the appearance the heels of Ebola’s arrival in the U.S. in September, Jacobson’s appearance in the earlier Defense One story led to an invitation by the Washington Post to write an op-ed on the topic. Titled “Airports Should Be Screening for Ebola the Same Way They Screen for Terrorists,” the piece appeared on October 2. In it, Jacobson said that screening would be the key approach to controlling the spread of the disease. “Screening passengers before they get onto an airplane is the best weapon available for limiting the spread of Ebola,” Jacobson said in the op-ed. “The least intrusive approach would be to question passengers on their travel histories over the previous three weeks.” Any passengers who can show they have not been in infected areas would be allowed to continue their travel to the U.S.
This piece in the Washington Post led to other invitations to share his expertise on this topic. He took part in a number of interviews with such media outlets as MSNBC, WAND TV in Decatur, CBC Radio Canada, and Huffington Post Live.
“We’re not social scientists or epidemiologists. We are trying to understand the decision making process,” Jacobson said of his approach. “Right now we don’t know if the right decisions are being made, so we’re trying to create an analytic framework.”
Although cases of Ebola in the U.S. have ceased, Jacobson sees this as no time to slow down. “This is the time when you want to conduct research and increase your understanding,” he said “Because, if the volume of people infected with Ebola in West Africa continues to increase, and it starts to spread into developed countries, then it can become a problem. We are doing research so that when the need does come, if it comes, we’re going to be prepared to give informed policy on the ensuing challenges.”
Since he was first approached last summer, Jacobson has started a new research focus on Ebola screening to help develop an understanding the best practices for controlling and preventing the spread of the disease. He has also been invited to join a bi-weekly online discussion group that brings together leading researchers from a variety of scientific fields to understand the issues Ebola poses for the United States.