Earlier today, a photograph of man in a button-down shirt and a pair of black trousers exploded all over the internet. He was spotted escorting Amber Vinson, the second nurse to become infected with Ebola in the US, to a plane that would take her to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. As many noted on Twitter, he wasn't wearing protective gear. Instead, he was holding a clipboard.
Almost immediately, #ClipboardMan became internet famous. Everyone wanted to know why he wasn't wearing a hazmat suit. Predictably, the conversation got a little heated on Twitter.
So #clipboardman belongs to the utterly incompetent CDC? Shocked I tell you, shocked.— Ty Wilson (@22TWilson) October 16, 2014
Fuck you #clipboardman— The Russo (@FootballRusso58) October 16, 2014
The vitriol seemed directly linked to the media's take on #ClipboardMan's attire. The Telegraph, for instance, published a video of the event that told viewers that this was both a "breach of protocol" and "an embarrassment for the [US] government."
But here's the thing: although #ClipboardMan could be wearing more protection — gloves and a face mask wouldn't hurt — he doesn't look like he's touching Vinson. He doesn't look like he's touching the people wearing protection either. So if what we see in the video is all that happened, #ClipboardMan's risk of getting infected doesn't appear to be very high. After all, Ebola isn't airborne. It can only be transmitted by coming into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who's showing symptoms. Vinson, of course, has been showing symptoms for a few days now, but if she isn't projectile vomiting, and #ClipboardMan isn't going out of his way to touch things she has also touched, this probably isn't a big deal.
He isn't touching Vinson or the people wearing protective gear
Still, this form of reasoning doesn't explain why he wasn't wearing a suit in the first place. Fortunately, ABC News took the time to dig up some information. As it turns out, biohazard suits aren't just hard to remove, they're also hard to see through. #ClipboardMan is the medical protocol supervisor charged with making sure that the people wearing protective gear don't accidentally trip over something, or touch a surface they shouldn't.
"Our medical professionals in the biohazard suits have limited vision and mobility and it is the protocol supervisor's job to watch each person carefully and give them verbal directions to insure no close contact protocols are violated," a spokesperson from Phoenix Air, the airline used to transport Vinson to Atlanta, told ABC News.
"it is the protocol supervisor's job to watch each person carefully."
This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for #ClipboardMan's lack of protective gear. He was making sure everyone else was being careful. Yet multiple news outlets rushed to point out his clipboard without supplying readers with an explanation. Ebola is a scary, gruesome disease, so it's only natural that some people are concerned, especially given past "breaches in protocol" in Dallas. But that's why we need reporters to help people make sense of it all (Fox News' Shepard Smith is a great example). They have a responsibility to stop unnecessary panic — to explain why Ebola isn't easy to catch in the US — instead of causing further alarm with unfinished stories and inaccurate statements.