By Derrick Perkins (File image)
Ebola has forced Alexandria’s chief medical expert to walk a tightrope.
As the outbreak worsened in West Africa and eventually made its way across the Atlantic earlier this year, Dr. Stephen Haering became tasked with explaining the deadly virus’ seriousness to the public while avoiding inciting panic. It can be difficult, said Haering, who serves as the city’s health director.
“We don’t want people to be fearful of Ebola; we want people to be aware,” he said, noting that flu season poses a greater risk.
Concern within the community reached its apex last month — after America’s first Ebola victim succumbed to the illness in Texas — prompting city councilors to invite Haering to present the regional response to the threat. Joined by representatives of Inova Health Systems and Alexandria’s first responders, Haering launched into what had become a familiar routine.
The African nations ravaged by Ebola suffer from poverty and a poor public health infrastructure while lacking many of the resources enjoyed by the west, he said. By contrast, the metropolitan region’s health experts were coordinating, preparing for the possibility of an Ebola-stricken resident.
It’s a message Haering has repeated to local doctors, residents, government officials and employers.
“The way we deal with it is just to continue with the same message: This is a virus that is wreaking havoc on three countries right now that are low resource, low income countries. It’s a true humanitarian crisis,” he said recently. “It’s difficult to explain how our public health infrastructure is so much better here than in West Africa. Our ability to respond to this event … would be much greater.”
Though interest in the epidemic dropped in recent weeks, according to data provided by Internet giant Google, Haering has remained busy. Like his colleagues across the country, he keeps tabs on travelers hailing from countries in the Ebola zone.
He continues working with local emergency responders and health organizations to coordinate a response if an Ebola case pops up here. Haering likewise consults with physicians reporting a patient with Ebola-like symptoms.
And he is educating employers on the outbreak and the virus.
“Initially, we had a number of different concerns from people that were employers that were saying, ‘We’ve got so and so and I know that my employee is from Liberia, do I need to be concerned?’” Haering said.
The answer? Not unless that employee recently traveled abroad, particularly to a nation where Ebola is present. Even then, the odds of a patient actually having the virus remain very low, Haering said.
“Statistically, they’re more likely to have malaria, even [if they are coming] from the Ebola affected countries,” he said.
While Ebola has appeared in Europe and the U.S. since the outbreak began to spiral out of control in the spring, the hardest hit countries remain Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The epidemic is the worst on record, having left around 13,268 sickened worldwide and about 4,960 dead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Travelers from the affected area are categorized, Haering said. Essentially, health officials assign the individual a threat level based on their level of exposure to the virus. Then travelers are monitored for 21 days, with officials keeping an eye out for any symptoms of Ebola.
If the individual were a healthcare worker, Haering hopes his colleague agrees to a self-quarantine.
But it’s a measure that earned intense scrutiny after Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine, protested being quarantined in New Jersey following a stint treating Ebola patients in Africa. Eventually allowed to return to Maine, she defied authorities there as well, refusing to agree to a negotiated quarantine.
Meanwhile, a doctor who returned to New York City alerted local health authorities after presenting Ebola-like symptoms. The diagnosis was confirmed, which prompted public anger — the doctor had gone jogging, eaten out and visited a bowling alley before realizing he was ill.
Dr. Craig Spencer was declared Ebola free earlier this week, but not before several states drew up plans for dealing with potentially infected travelers. The list included Virginia.
The commonwealth’s health commissioner, Marissa Levine, told reporters late last month that quarantining an individual against their will was a possibility in certain cases. Haering, who answers to the state rather than City Hall, hopes it does not come to that.
“If they were not willing to [go into a voluntary quarantine] or they were not compliant, it would be up to the state health commissioner to implement quarantine,” he said. “That would be a state decision.”
All the talk about Ebola has presented Haering with an opportunity: Encouraging residents to take precautions when feeling ill — such as staying home sick or phoning ahead to the doctor’s office if coming in with a fever — and urging them to get a flu shot.
“It’s more likely that people are going to end up with influenza [than Ebola],” he said. “There’s no mystery about how [Ebola] is transmitted. We keep coming back to what the facts are about the virus. It’s not anything to be fearful about, but something to be aware of.”