By Derrick Perkins (Image/CDC)
Keep calm and carry on. Oh, and get a flu shot.
That was the message Dr. Stephen Haering offered residents and city officials anxiously scanning the headlines and news tickers for updates on the unfolding Ebola crisis here and abroad. Alexandria is not West Africa, he told city councilors during a briefing on the international emergency earlier this month.
“One of the big differences we have here, of course, is a public health infrastructure,” said Haering, who heads Alexandria’s health department. “We have a strong infrastructure. We have good working relationships with our partners.”
City councilors brought Haering in alongside representatives from Inova Health Systems, Alexandria’s first responders and other medical experts to assuage fears and describe the steps being taken to prevent an Ebola outbreak in the metropolitan area. The briefing came just after the U.S. saw its first Ebola-related death — Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man in Texas — and the nation’s first two homegrown cases, nurses who treated the sick man.
“We don’t intent to alarm our citizens; we want them to have knowledge and to be better educated,” said Mayor Bill Euille. “We constantly hear about flaws, mistakes and other things beyond our control, local control, but the reality is we want to know are we doing all the right things and what else [we need to be doing].”
While Ebola remains a serious threat in Africa, Haering was quick to note how much better Alexandria was positioned to face such a disease. By comparison, many hospitals in the Ebola zone lack running water, sterile gloves and other equipment, and even medical professionals, he said.
Across the region, medical experts began preparing for Ebola back in April, Haering said.
“One of the strengths that we have in the U.S. is our surveillance systems,” he said. “We were really leaning forward as early as the middle of April when we first started working on this and communicating with the hospital to be aware of this outbreak.”
This year’s outbreak is the worst in memory. Around 2,500 people have died of the disease in Liberia alone and the country is struggling under the magnitude of the catastrophe. The situation there is so bad, the Centers for Disease Control add a caveat to its official count of victims and cases because data is not available from the hard-hit West African nation.
And Duncan traveled through Washington Dulles International Airport en route to Texas. Having another infected traveler arrive in the metropolitan area is a scenario Haering cannot discount.
Were it to happen, though, he is confident medical officials are ready to contain the situation.
“I don’t want to speculate about what would happen in terms of a traveler, but I can assure everybody that we have a robust and strong health system,” Haering said.
Health officials are working overtime to educate employers, first responders, school officials and residents about Ebola, he said. Just last week, officials with Alexandria City Public Schools unveiled its Ebola policy, which asks parents to report contact with an Ebola victim as well as any travel to affected countries. The district’s nurses also will monitor attendance records and check the temperature of any student complaining of feeling unwell.
“As the first cases of Ebola virus are beginning to be seen in the United States, [the district] is taking every measure possible to prevent the transmission of the disease and keep our students healthy and our schools safe,” officials said in a statement. “While in its early stages, Ebola is less contagious. As such, it presents little risk to students in their regular school activities. By the time Ebola is contagious, the patient would most likely no longer be physically able to attend school.
Dr. Martin Brown of Inova also was quick to note how the hospital system prepares for the eventuality of Ebola in Northern Virginia.
“We have a system within the Inova system to deal with all hazardous events,” Brown said. “Over the last 12 weeks or so we’ve had multiple meetings about the Ebola … to prepare the Inova system for this event.”
Officials now hold daily meetings about the outbreak and they are reserving space in case a patient is admitted, he said.
Haering also reiterated that Ebola is not airborne. People only contract the disease after coming into direct contact with a victim who is symptomatic. He recommended residents practice good hygiene — regularly washing hands — stay home when sick and call the doctor ahead of time if you are coming in with a fever.
And get a flu shot, Haering said.