By Hunter Johnson
Editor in Chief
Dallas is Ebola-free, officials declared this past Friday. As cities across the globe are still preparing for the potential of an Ebola outbreak, Dallas is already looking back on its ordeal with the deadly virus.
The last 21-day monitoring period for an individual exposed to the infected patients came to an end on Nov. 7. Officials and residents have begun to reflect on this chapter in the city’s history and analyze how the outbreak was handled.
On Nov. 5, The Dallas Morning News hosted a panel discussion on the recent scare featuring city officials and members of the media. One of the first topics of discussion was centered on the first person in the nation to develop Ebola: Thomas Duncan, a native of Liberia who was visiting loved ones in Dallas when he became sick.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins described what he saw when he went to retrieve Duncan’s girlfriend, Louise Troh, from the apartment where Duncan had been staying. The apartment was in the process of being decontaminated.
“The people in the hazmat suits were there when I went and got Louise out of the apartment,” he said. “I didn’t want to further dehumanize Louise, who I’d met the night before, who was sleeping on the floor on a couch cushion because the bodily fluid waste of Duncan was taking up one room and the young men were sleeping in another… the people in the hazmat suits were there to cut up the mattress and put it in barrels [for disposal].”
Although Duncan was able to receive far better medical care than that available to most Ebola patients in Africa, he passed away 10 days after his admittance to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. The hospital soon fell under scrutiny for how it handled Duncan during his admission process and treatment. Dr. Dan Varga, chief clinical officer to Texas Health Resources, stated that reviews of the hospital’s treatment of Duncan would be forthcoming.
“We’ve already started the conversation around lessons learned relative to the first three patients that we diagnosed at Presbyterian,” Varga stated. “We will be doing an external review of all of the care surrounding this and have committed to sharing those findings publically and … there are actually the case reports of Mr. Duncan’s care … that are being right now written up for peer review.”
There are also questions left to be answered regarding the cases of Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, nurses who treated Duncan. Although both nurses have recalled their experiences with treating Duncan, it is still unclear how they both managed to become infected. Vinson in particular caused a media frenzy when it was revealed that she had flown back to Dallas from Cleveland, Ohio while experiencing Ebola symptoms.
Because there is a potential that Vinson infected others aboard her flight, and because a New York medical worker who had traveled to West Africa was recently diagnosed with the disease, civic leaders across the country are looking to Dallas to see how its leaders coped with the crisis. Jenkins outlined steps that Dallas took to prepare other cities for an outbreak.
“The mayor has had a conference call with the [United States] Conference of Mayors,” he stated. “We’ve been asked to speak to a lot of different groups in a lot of different states.” These groups included many cities on the East Coast, on topics such as how to quarantine people potentially exposed to Ebola.”
Richardson Mayor Laura Maczka explained how sharing information with her community was key in preparing residents for new cases of the virus, especially because Richardson was one of the few places in the country with a facility ready to isolate Ebola patients.
“You hope and pray that something like this doesn’t happen in your community, but we happened to have a [suitable] facility,” she said. “We came up with a plan for communicating what was going to happen, and sharing with our city and our residents the science and not just the sensation.”
Maczka also stated that once residents better understood the role Richardson could play in combatting a potential outbreak, the facility became a source of pride for the community as well as a means to save lives.
Mike Miles, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District, described how some schools in the district were cleaned thoroughly in response to the potential Ebola exposure of five students. He explained that, although some of the measures taken might be seen as excessive, the important thing was to make sure the community felt secure.
“There is a balance between following the science exactly and making sure that the people’s concerns are heard,” he said. “There were no students who were symptomatic in the schools … so there’s no need to clean the schools anymore than the normal cleaning they would do … [but] we struck a balance with additional cleaning to kind of calm the fears down.”
Miles also said that other school districts across the country had reached out to learn Dallas ISD’s response plans. He said that they shared model fact sheets on the virus as well as template letters to families and communities with other districts.
The administration at the University of Dallas was also prepared to handle the situation, according to Robert Galecke, executive vice president of the university, in an interview with The University News. He said that the university fielded many phone calls early on concerning student safety and the University of Dallas Ministry Conference, which took place soon after the outbreak.
“We were getting calls from parents,” he said. “And we were getting calls about the visitors center and there were concerns for people flying in for a convention. But it dissipated pretty quickly because the good news is nothing else materialized [in Dallas].”
According to Galecke, a large factor in preparedness on campus is the mindset of students and faculty. He said that the UD community tends to look out for one another, and that as a response to the Ebola scare, people at UD will take extra precautions if they are feeling ill.
“Today when you think of someone with a 101-degree temperature, you’re going to think of them a lot differently than you would six months ago,” he said. “We’re going to go in and see Dr. Dekat or go to the ER because we’re really worried about it personally, but not only that but what it could mean for my roommates or [others].”
Galecke also noted that UD is able to rely on an excellent working relationship with Irving fire and police departments. He added that UD has some of the best response times with ambulances in Irving.
Galecke noted that it is important to think of Dallas’ Ebola scare in the context of the the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. According to the Wall Street Journal, the World Health Organization has reported that nearly 5,000 people have died from the virus there. The United Nations has said over 13,000 have been confirmed as infected. The number of infected only continues to rise.
According to Jenkins, an important takeaway from the Dallas scare is how people should be treated and informed in this sort of crisis.
“We treated everyone the way we would want to be treated” he said. “We tried to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and we tried to stay home to what the science is because that’s the way you can ramp down the panic.”