As Ebola Fears Spread, Drastic Measures Are Taken

by | October 17, 2014

By Sarah Mervosh, Melissa Repko, Matthew Haag and Marc Ramirez

Tiffany Watters has cut off close contact with the outside world.

She and her husband take their temperatures morning and night. Their employers have told them to work from home. And they've assembled a network of people to deliver necessities, including leaving food outside their apartment door.

It's a new life for the Watters -- at least for now -- because they were on Frontier Airlines flight 1143 Monday from Cleveland to Dallas. Also on the plane was Amber Vinson, who traveled with a low-grade fever before it spiked and she was diagnosed with Ebola the next day.

"Because of the fear factor, maybe it's overkill, but at this point it is better safe than sorry," Watters said Thursday during a telephone interview. "We say we know health care has a handle on it. But do they, really?"

The latest case in the ongoing Ebola scare has spread panic and fear across the country. People who believe they were near Vinson have locked themselves in isolation. The plane that brought Vinson to Dallas is also isolated in a Denver hangar.

In Ohio, three health care systems placed a group of nurses on leave because they were on Vinson's flight.

Two schools in suburban Cleveland -- because a school employee may have flown on the same Frontier aircraft -- were closed and disinfected Thursday. New York Giants players were briefed about Ebola in advance of their game Sunday against the Cowboys in Arlington.

And Navarro College in Corsicana has postponed recruiting applicants from the entire continent of Africa.

The risk of catching Ebola -- a well-studied disease whose research dates back 40 years -- is infinitesimally small, but the fear is massively real.

PASSENGERS

Axl Goode, an author and model, returned to Dallas on the same flight as Vinson. He was told Wednesday by Dallas County Health and Human Services that he sat within three feet of her. Goode has now gone into a self-imposed quarantine in his Far North Dallas apartment.

"It would be selfish of me to leave and put others in harm," he said. "If there is even the slightest possibility of being infected, I would never wish that on anyone else."

He said he slept on the flight back to Dallas and didn't see Vinson.

Goode said he'll survive the 21 days in isolation with help from work and friends, who plan to leave food and water outside his apartment. A nurse will check on him daily until early November. He's also checking his temperature twice a day.

His other place of work, as a dancer at the male strip club LeBare, has encouraged him to stay home.

"I am almost feel like I should write a Stephen King novel after this," Goode said by phone Thursday.

SCHOOLS

Across the nation, schools announced closures, released students early, asked employees and students to stay at home and stepped up cleaning efforts after learning that students and staff may have been exposed to confirmed Ebola patients.

In Texas, Royse City ISD announced two schools would be closed Friday after being told a health care worker with two children in the district helped care for at least one of the Dallas Ebola patients. The Royse City mother has been classified as "low risk," the district said.

Other districts ranging from Fort Worth to Garland said schools would be temporarily closed and/or disinfected because employees, parents, staff or students had been on a flight with Vinson.

In Fort Worth, the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD asked a family to isolate itself for three weeks because a family member had been on Vinson's flight.

Schools in Ohio districts took similar measures.

In suburban Cleveland, Solon City Schools closed two schools after a staff member who'd flown Frontier early Tuesday from Dallas to Cleveland told her school's principal about Vinson's diagnosis. The buildings were closed Thursday and will be disinfected by custodial staff.

"We are going the extra mile to make sure we allay people's fears as much as we can," said district spokeswoman Tammy Strom.

In Akron, Ohio, officials sent students home early at the Resnik Community Learning Center and said it would remain closed until Monday. The school said a parent had spent time with Vinson during her weekend visit.

EXTREME MEASURES

Fears about Ebola have prompted some to take more extreme measures.

Navarro College, a two-year public college in Corsicana with about 100 African students enrolled, first announced it would suspend recruitment or acceptance of students from Ebola-affected African countries. Asked to clarify, the school expanded that status to potential students from throughout the sprawling continent.

"We are currently not accepting students from any African countries," Navarro spokesman Dewayne Gragg responded via email. "We will continue to monitor the situation keeping the safety of our students foremost and will make adjustments when we feel justified."

Meanwhile, Ben Obregon's son has received the opportunity of a lifetime -- but the suburban Austin father wishes his son would pass.

His son is one of the youngest competitors from his school competing in a massive debate tournament this weekend. It's hosted by St. Mark's School of Texas, which Obregon said he learned has students whose parents work at Presbyterian Hospital.

Obregon worries a St. Mark's student might have contracted Ebola from a parent and will bring it to the debate.

"I want the CDC to know that if exposure really happened, it could go to 20 different states and 107 high schools," he said. "The odds are against catching the virus. But with this, it's not like catching the flu. "

In the end, Obregon said he let his son attend the debate tournament. But Obregon is staying home.

In Dallas, bartender Porfirio Contreras of Tate's in Uptown said friends in Austin who normally visit Dallas for the Texas-Oklahoma football game decided not to make the trip this year.

"They said they were going to avoid Dallas until they find out more about the Ebola situation," he said.

On the location-sharing social-media site Foursquare, someone had dubbed the neighborhood around Presbyterian Hospital "Ebola, TX."

HOSPITAL

At the beleaguered hospital, Guy Leonard, 51, exited a building Wednesday wearing a surgical mask and plastic gloves -- to protect himself from Ebola, he said. He said he requested the protective gear from a hospital employee so he could safely visit his girlfriend while she recovers from surgery.

Though experts say it's transmitted only via an infected person's bodily fluids, Leonard worries the virus can be airborne.

"I just came here to show my respect for my girlfriend and bring her some pajamas and some house shoes," he said. "I won't come back."

Leonard said he lives across the street from The Ivy Apartments, where the initial Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, stayed while visiting family. Duncan later died. "That's another thing that's scary," Leonard said.

A cashier working a parking booth at the hospital also wore plastic gloves -- one blue, one clear -- to "take precautions and be safe."

However, a women's health staffer who asked not to be identified said she's been trying to quell panic among people who are misinformed about how Ebola is spread.

"The biggest thing I get asked by my staff and my patients is, 'If it's not airborne, then how come we have employees who have it?'" she said.

Dr. Jay Staub, a OB/GYN who works in Presbyterian's women and infants unit, said he's heard of cancellations at his office and beyond, from a pregnant woman due to have a caesarean section to a woman scheduled for breast cancer surgery.

"We've had quite a number of cancellations -- patients who are not comfortable coming onto campus," Staub said. "It's crazy fear and hysteria and panic for no good reason. We've had to talk a lot of people off the ledge."

Staub added: "If you're not worried about going to the grocery store, you shouldn't be worried about coming to see us," he said. "The risk is about the same: zero."

BUSINESS

Commerce, too, has been affected by Ebola concerns.

Cedars Mediterranean Mezza & Grill is a popular lunch spot for hospital staff and patients, but the restaurant has seen a noticeable drop in the lunchtime crowd since Presbyterian became synonymous with Ebola.

"Usually it's a wait to get a table," general manager Nabil Dimassi said Thursday. "The last few weeks, it has been slow and slower. Today was the slowest lunch we've ever had.

"Let's hope this ends quickly," Dimassi said. "It's not the business that I'm worried about. I'm worried about the community."

Next door, however, a store that sells medical scrubs in a rainbow of colors was operating normally. Lori Alfrey, the general Manager of Uniform World who also wore scrubs, said it had been "business as usual" aside from a visit from a news crew from Russia.

And over at Salon 928, co-owner Jeri Thomas said business "hasn't really changed one way or the other." But she added: "It's been a huge salon conversation."

Her fellow owner Betty DeShields said the reaction has been overblown by the "big dose of crazy in the world." She's planning to keep a doctor's appointment next week at the hospital's Margot Perot Center for Women and Infants.

"I have a better chance of getting Ebola at my house than I would at Margot Perot," she said.

Lake Pointe Elementary (Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD) -- A family with a child at the school has been asked to isolate itself for 21 days after a family member was on a flight with Vinson.

Silver Lake Elementary and Grapevine Middle School (Grapevine Colleyville ISD) -- An employee and three students were on a flight with Vinson. Schools will be disinfected overnight and buses that serve the campuses will be take out of service until they can be disinfected. The students and employee are staying home from school.

No school identified (Lewisville ISD) -- The school district sent an email to parents saying two community members related to three students and a staff member traveled on a flight with Vinson. The district does not plan to close or increase cleaning.

Transition Center (Hurst Euless Bedford ISD) -- A secretary at the Transition Center, a campus with special education staff and vocational skills training, was on the same plane as Vinson. She was placed on leave by the district.

North Garland High School and Schrade Middle School (Garland ISD) -- The campuses will get extra cleaning after parents of four students in the district flew aboard the same flight as Vinson.

Davis Elementary School and Ruth Cherry Intermediate School (Royse City ISD) -- The campuses will be closed Friday for deep cleaning after the district learned a health care worker who had contact with an Ebola patient has two children in the district. The health care worker has voluntarily chosen to keep her students at home during the isolation period.

(c)2014 The Dallas Morning News