I wrote this for a client a few years ago. When I recently came upon it in my file, it prompted memories, a bit of surprise and more than a little sadness. It was first published in an online magazine (which no longer exists) on October 10, 2014.
Beware of Men in Masks (and Hazmat Suits)
The journey of one Liberian man, in seemingly good health, to Dallas to die of Ebola has set off a firestorm of debate not only in this Texas city, but across the nation. The city today represents the epicenter of concern about infectious disease. It also is a center for debate about treatment protocols, hospital admitting procedures, care for the uninsured and for non-citizens, and about race relations, open borders and quarantine precautions.
There are more unanswered questions than there are answers now in Dallas. Dr. Tom Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday called Ebola “a fluid and heterogeneous epidemic,” saying that in 30 years in public health he has seen nothing like it since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Thomas Eric Duncan traveled from Africa to Dallas the end of September. Apparently, he had no idea that he had contracted the viral disease that has killed nearly 4,000 in West Africa. Other facts are not so clear.
As unlikely as the chance may be that either has contracted the disease, two other men — one a county sheriff, one homeless — were transported to Dallas hospitals for testing by men in masks and full hazmat suits. The apartment where Duncan stayed was “sanitized” by a cleaning crew, also wearing head-to-toe protective suits and respirators, over a four-day period.
Dozens of “low risk” individuals are being monitored by health officials. Those who were in direct contact with Duncan prior to and during the early days of his illness, are in quarantine. Ambulances and vehicles used to transport the family to secure and undisclosed quarantine locations have been thoroughly sterilized.
Many in Dallas are on edge. Rumors circulate. News anchors and talk show hosts dutifully report the latest developments. Meanwhile, every headache and every bout of indigestion brings with it a passing thought: “Is there a way I could have come in contact with the Ebola virus?”
As that concern grows, fueled at least partially by some of the misinformation being circulated, sales of respirators and protective clothing are reportedly increasing around the country.
Is this the look of the future?
*Note: At the time this was written, a second diseased man was scheduled to arrive for treatment at a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. As it turned out, only two people died from Ebola in the United States in 2014. Seven people with the disease were evacuated from other countries for treatment in the U.S., and four laboratory-confirmed infections were recorded. Nine patients recovered fully.
According to the BBC, during the 21-month period after the first case was confirmed in March of 2014, more than 28,600 people were infected, and 11,315 deaths were confirmed in six countries other than the United States: Liberia, Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Mali.
**Update: As of December 19, 2019, more than 3,300 cases and 2,200 deaths from a new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had been reported since mid-2018. The new outbreak was declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization in July of 2019.
It was less than two weeks later that the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China.
Since September 2018, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the CDC, and several other government agencies, provided technical and financial support in an amount of more than $250 million for disease response in the DRC. In 2014, the U.S. led the response to the initial Ebola virus outbreak in 2014.
So the question remains: In a shrinking world with ever-increasing mobility, is this the new normal? Are more frequent outbreaks of contagious disease, with masks and stay-at-home orders the price we will all pay? Is this our introduction to the future?